The shame of new-age politics

27th February 2009 at 00:00

Discussing the issue of Alfie, the "shock-horror" father aged 13, the Times columnist David Aaronovitch noted that he is "a child whose privacy has been violated and whose welfare we simply don't care about".

In all the headline-grabbing moral outrage about the Alfie case, this issue of privacy has been somewhat overlooked, and yet it is perhaps the most important one to address.

Max Clifford already represents the Patten family and will no doubt "assist" Alfie and his parents to open their front door and, indeed, their bedroom door just a little further so that we can ghoulishly peer in and pick at their chaotic private lives. This is perhaps less a "violation" of privacy, as Aaronovitch states, than a case of a wily PR man literally pushing at an open door.

Conservative politicians and commentators talk big about morality when cases like Alfie's pop up, but surprisingly little is said about the wider moral question regarding privacy. Perhaps rather than self-righteously comparing the Pattens with the underclass family in Channel 4's Shameless TV show, we should be questioning what has happened to the idea of a private life - indeed, what has happened to the moral idea of shame.

In our confessional age, it is perhaps unsurprising to read that there is now a queue of teenage boys lining up to tell their story, each claiming that they are the true father of Chantelle's child - and who could blame them when a reported 15 television companies are competing for this latest fly on the wall expose. Money may well be the main reason for these young boys stepping forward, but they do so in a climate that encourages us all to open up our private lives, feelings and actions to the gaze of the public.

However, we do not have to go to Alfie's estate to find people willing to expose their and their loved ones' private lives to the glare of the TV cameras and gossip columnists. Whether it is Jade Goody's cancer, John Suchet discussing his wife's dementia, or Newnight's Gavin Esler inviting us into his front room to meet his daughter who is suffering from cancer, selfexpose is all the rage.

It is perhaps an impossibility for today's new-age politicians to raise "moral" questions about this new type of behaviour, as they themselves queue up to follow John Prescott's example of sharing his personal difficulties and "inner pain" (of bulimia) with the world.

Today's culture appears to validate those who expose their private selves to the public gaze. Unfortunately, rather than challenge this trend, politicians - perhaps epitomised by Robert Kilroy-Silk, whose political debate show became an Oprah-esque counselling session - have joined in.

In this respect, the great irony of the Alfie saga is that, despite Conservative mutterings about morality, their own leader, David Cameron, reflected this very shift.

The banner headline for an article written in the Sun by David Cameron read: "I looked in his eyes. It was so sad". Here, Cameron was attempting to appeal to us all not through a political or a moral standpoint, but by opening himself up, by exposing to us his inner emotions, by declaring in a Blairite fashion: "I feel his pain."

Step forth the new-age confessional politician. But we must ask, have you no shame?

Stuart Waiton is director of Generation YouthIssues.org.

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