Should private tragedies be for public consumption?

Reactions to the untimely death of the Tory leader’s young son reveal much about the problems with the media and politics today.

Mick Hume

Mick Hume

Topics Politics UK

Alongside tales of doom and gloom about the economic crisis, the news appears to be dominated by stories about death. Not deaths from wars or disasters or of major public figures, but what would once have been seen as private tragedies caused by medical conditions. We seem to be receiving several bulletins a day from the sickbed of Jade Goody, the reality TV personality dying of cancer. And the media has been filled for almost a week with discussion of the death of Ivan, the six-year-old son of Conservative leader David Cameron, who suffered from cerebral palsy and severe epilepsy.

I do not want to say anything about the plight of either individual or their families – as strangers we should express sympathy for anybody in such difficult circumstances, and beyond that leave their loved ones to grieve and try to get on with their lives. However, the public reactions to these personal tragedies, and the attempts to extract wider truths from them, should be worrying for all of us.

Brendan O’Neill has already written on spiked about the confused response to Jade Goody’s terminal illness, which has seen her suffering used as ammunition in public debates about everything from raising awareness of cervical cancer screening to fears of mobilising a sentimental mob (see Jade, Diana and the myth of public hysteria). Little Ivan Cameron’s death seems even more tragic to many. Yet at the risk of being labelled a cold dinosaur, it is worth questioning some of the reactions here, too.

Of course Ivan Cameron’s death, sudden and shocking though not entirely unexpected, should have been reported. But why did it dominate the news on the day and why has it continued to be so prominent in the media since? This looks like another case where the news media opted for making an emotional connection with their audience rather than enlightening anybody, where emoting took precedence over analysing important events or explaining the world – a symptom of the trends in journalism which some of us have criticised for more than decade.

Even more concerning – and partly explaining the media response – has been the political reaction to Ivan Cameron’s death. It was right for Labour prime minister Gordon Brown and others to express their sympathy for the leader of the opposition on the untimely death of his son. However, there was no call for them to lecture us about the meaning of the death of a child, far less to take the extraordinary step of cancelling prime minister’s questions and closing parliament for the day as a mark of respect, the speaker of the House of Commons said, ‘for Ivan’.

However sympathetic one might feel towards the Camerons as bereaved parents, the effective suspension of parliamentary democracy in response to the death of a child was out of order. Some might ask why parliament is not suspended after the death of other children, or of the three British soldiers reported killed in Afghanistan that same day. Others among us are more inclined to ask why democracy should be suspended for any such death. Nothing of the sort was done after, say, the 7/7 London bombings in 2005, or the demise of prominent public figures, far less their relatives – and rightly so.

This is not a matter of being cold-hearted. Some of us are increasingly concerned by the removal of the distinction between the public and the private – both in the sense of public bodies and authorities interfering in private matters, and of private concerns coming to dominate public and political life.

’The personal is political’ began as a fringe feminist slogan. Now we can see the extent to which it is accepted at the level of national politics, and has even permeated the mindset of some in the modern Conservative Party. What those radical feminists (female and male) sought to do was to elevate their personal lives into events of political meaning. Today the tendency is more to lower the horizons of mainstream politics to the level of personal matters. Either way, the result is to invade the private sphere and degrade the substance of public life. And who benefits from that?

Those from all sides who have defended the political-media response to the death of Cameron’s son claim that it has helped to transform our society and show us a more caring, empathetic way to come together. Thus one columnist gushed about Ivan’s ‘amazing legacy’ and how his life had created a ‘transformative level of understanding… of what matters…not just for our potential future prime minister, but by osmosis for the country as a whole, regardless of what anybody’s politics might be’. It is truly a sad day if making a big show of the death of a child is the best that they can offer as a way of bringing people together.

A conservative columnist meanwhile, insisting that parliament’s response to the death was not a ‘Diana moment’, wrote that: ‘For once, the Commons spoke with absolute, unambiguous clarity for and on behalf of the rest of us. For once… people who habitually dismiss parliament as a trough in which 646 pigs bury their snouts, felt truly represented.’ Is that really what good political leadership means today, then – finding a lowest common denominator of national emotion, leading a parade of second-hand grief? Which, incidentally, was pretty much what the ‘Diana moment’ represented for Tony Blair and Co.

Others suggested that the experience of caring for Ivan through his short and painful life had made Cameron far more understanding of the health service, and so, through altering the attitude of the next prime minister, had ‘changed Britain’. No doubt it is true that firsthand experience of relying on hardworking NHS staff opens people’s eyes. But the caring relationship between Cameron and his son is not a good model for the future of politics. We are not his disabled children and the qualities required to be a good leader are rather different from those involved in being a caring father.

New Labour’s response to the events of the past week is also revealing. Not so long ago Brown was objecting that, unlike certain other people (for example, Cameron and Blair) he did not parade his children in public for political effect. His speech in parliament after Ivan Cameron’s death, however, drew implicit parallels with the death of his own baby daughter. Meanwhile, behind the scenes, other Labour ministers were reportedly muttering about the media coverage of this family tragedy being ‘unfair’ to the government. New Labour’s apparent fear that a wave of sympathy for Cameron could seal the next election for the Conservatives revealed how little they have to offer voters in the way of politics – and how little they think of the electorate.

The Camerons understandably asked the media to respect their family’s privacy. Yet yesterday Ivan’s death was still making headlines; media outlets splashed the emotional email from the Conservative leader thanking party members for their messages of support. While explaining how ‘desperately’ they missed their boy, Cameron noted that ‘he leaves a hole in our life so big that words can’t describe it’. If words cannot express the grief of the family, then the rest of us strangers really should shut up about it. Having said we are sorry for their loss, we should surely leave loved ones to try to come to terms with their private tragedies, while we get on with the public business of debating the sort of country in which we might want to live.

Mick Hume is spiked‘s editor-at-large.

Previously on spiked

Mick Hume looked at the Madeleine McCann case and how it reflected Britain after Diana. Brendan O’Neill looked at the media’s response to Jade Goody and her ‘celebrity cancer’ and reviewed a book examining Britain’s ‘conspicuous compassion’. Frank Furedi examined our unhealthy obsession with sickness. Rob Lyons explained why grief should not be a national sport. Or read more at spiked issue Death and mourning.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics UK


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