Rebekah Brooks’s appearance at the Leveson inquiry on Friday has renewed attention on The Sun’s decision, under her editorship, to reveal that Gordon Brown’s son Fraser has cystic fibrosis.
It was, I felt at the time and continue to feel today, a pretty inexcusable story to publish, irrespective of how it was sourced. It’s impossible to see how disclosing details of this boy’s health could possibly have been in the public interest. It ought to have remained private — as the press has righly done on other occasions where health information about children of leading politicians has become widely known on Fleet Street.
There’s a distinction to be made here, though, with another episode I cover in The Geek Manifesto. I’m talking, of course, about the Blairs’ refusal to answer questions about whether their son Leo had had the MMR vaccine.
At first, I thought this was defensible. It was private medical information, and in principle there was no reason why the Blairs should have been obliged to reveal it. But if they were within their rights to take this decision, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that it was irresponsible. Privacy for Fraser Brown would have had no consequences at all for public health. But the privacy claimed for Leo Blair had a devastating effect.
As Prime Minister, Tony Blair led a government that had, correctly, sought to reassure the public that there was no link between MMR and autism, following the groundless scare promoted by the discredited Andrew Wakefield and his media champions. Yet in refusing to say whether his own son had had a routine vaccination that his health ministers were telling other parents they ought to be sanctioning for their children.
It naturally invited the question of whether Blair knew something his government wasn’t sharing with ordinary parents. It suggested that the Prime Minister did not trust the advice being given by his own Health Secretary. It gave the MMR scare fresh legs in the media, which in turn caused a collapse in MMR vaccination rates and to an upsurge in measles infections.
The Prime Minister’s reticence might have been more understandable had Leo not been vaccinated. But Blair later admitted in his autobiography that his son had been given the jab.
As Michael Specter wrote on the saga in Denialism: “No virus respects privacy… so public health is never solely personal, as the impact on Britain has shown.”