Drug-Fighter Turns In His Child, Wins Praise
Son of Britain's Home Secretary Jack Straw taken to police after newspaper sting.
LONDON — For Jack Straw the parent, the arrest of his 17-year-old son for allegedly selling marijuana was a personal nightmare.
For Mr. Straw the British home secretary, a drug-busting senior member of Prime Minister Tony Blair's government, it looked like a devastating political blow.
But after more than a week in which a quirk of English law prevented either father or son being named, Straw has emerged from a family crisis to widespread public acclaim.
Political supporters and opponents alike have praised his handling of a situation that appeared to call into question his high-profile commitment to firm parenting and to zero tolerance of narcotics.
The case contrasts with a similar flap that enveloped the Clinton administration two years ago. Republicans accused President Clinton of a lax attitude toward drugs when it was revealed that about 40 officials cleared for White House access had a history of substance abuse. Press Secretary Mike McCurry admitted occasional use of marijuana in his youth. In 1994, the administration had ordered increased testing of employees with a history of recent drug use.
The Straw family's difficulties began Dec. 20, when Piers Morgan, editor of the Daily Mirror, a London tabloid, telephoned the home secretary to say that his son William had sold an undercover reporter 10 ($16) worth of marijuana resin. Mr. Morgan said he planned to publish the story.
Ironically, Straw is heading a new government task force aimed at helping parents handle difficult problems, including drug-taking by their children. The integrity of government policy and Straw's own parenting skills was suddenly on the line.
He asked Morgan for time to talk to his son and political colleagues.
Then, on Dec. 22, father and son went to a local police station, where William was arrested and then released on bail.
Two days later the Mirror ran its story, but with a bizarre twist: Under a 1933 English law, the names of accused persons under 18 may not be revealed before formal prosecution begins.
So began what commentators described as a farce and Straw called "a period of intense pain and profound frustration."
Because neither father nor son could legally be named, Straw could not comment publicly, even though his identity had been revealed on the Internet and in European papers freely available in Britain.
Finally on Friday, thanks to differences between English and Scottish law, the "farce" ended. In Scotland, publication of the names of accused persons over the age of 16 is allowed, and three Scottish newspapers decided to report that Straw was the minister concerned.
In London, the High Court ruled that reporting restrictions could be lifted in the case because, as the judge said, they were "no longer realistic."
Straw immediately called a news conference and said neither he nor his son expected any favors from the legal system. "Being a parent means giving love and support when it's necessary, and confronting children with their wrongdoing."
He said the experience had done nothing to change his attitude toward drugs. "The United Nations regards drugs, including [marijuana], as dangerous. I too shall continue to do so until there is evidence to the contrary."
Straw's comments were in line with his reputation as the Blair government's most vehement opponent of legalizing marijuana.
Amid widespread public approval of Straw's conduct, Sir Brian Mawhinney, the opposition Conservative home affairs spokesman, said, "My sympathy lies with the Straw family in these difficult circumstances. Everybody will be pleased that the hide-and-seek nonsense of the last few days is over."
Important issues remain to be resolved, however. Daily Mirror editor Morgan denies suggestions that his reporter deliberately entrapped William Straw, but Morgan is likely to be censured by the watchdog Press Complaints Commission for his paper's part in the affair.
During the crisis, the Mirror reporter also was arrested for possession of marijuana, then freed on bail.
A decision by law officers on whether to prosecute William Straw is expected early this week. There are certain to be calls, too, for the government to take a second look at the law that for so long prevented the name of Straw and his son from being published in England.
Roger Gale, deputy chairman of the Conservative Party's media affairs committee, says, "It is ludicrous that one part of the United Kingdom was unable to publish the name that virtually everybody in public knew."
Meanwhile, most of the London media have signaled approval of the secretary's actions.
The London Times commented Saturday: "Mr. Straw may be able to do his job better now. His understanding of the problems of drugs, teenagers, parenting, and youth justice will have been enhanced."