British leader puts Blair watch project on notice

Prime Minister Tony Blair and his wife Cherie, a highly respected legal advocate, have put the Britain's media on notice that they intend to protect their family's right to privacy.

The couple was outraged after a London tabloid, The Mail on Sunday, ran excerpts on March 5 of a manuscript written by their former nanny. They sought, and received, a court ruling banning publication of any information related to the nanny's period of employment at their home. Her account appeared in early editions of the paper but was removed from later editions.

The stand is stirring debate about how far people in the public eye can rightly resist media intrusion into their lives.

It has also reawakened demands that the Blair government should enact a media privacy law instead of relying, as now, on a code of self-restraint by newspapers and television.

Members of Britain's royal family have often been targets of unwelcome media intrusion, usually from tabloids, but only rarely have the country's political leaders fought back against attempts to peer into their private lives.

The Blairs' action in seeking a legal gag on former nanny Rosalind Mark's account of life with their family from 1994 to 1998, the time up to and just following the 1997 election victory that brought Mr. Blair to power, has been condemned by The Mail on Sunday as "draconian."

Before taking her job with the Blairs, Ms. Mark signed a confidentiality agreement not to violate the family's privacy.

The paper said it would fight the Blairs' injunction in the High Court in London, claiming the account was "in the public interest." The paper denied that the story did any harm to the Blairs or their three children.

There is confusion as to how Mark's account came to appear in the press. She admits writing a 400-page draft and giving it to a literary agent. She also admits speaking to the Mail on Sunday and posing for its photographers. But she denies having agreed to the publication of extracts. Her agent also denies passing the text to the paper. Mark now says she no longer intends to publish her book, and claims to have been been "devastated" by the row.

Blair insists he is asserting a vital point of principle, rather than imposing a ban. But he says he is prepared to do "whatever it takes" to protect his family's privacy.

He said in a statement March 5, "I am not just the prime minister, but also a father and husband, and Cherie and I are absolutely determined ... that our children have as normal an upbringing as possible."

The case has added poignancy because Mrs. Blair is expecting their fourth child in May. There is concern that public curiosity about the first child born to a sitting prime minister since 1848 could touch off a media frenzy.

It is not the first time the Blairs have taken action over alleged media intrusion.

In December, the couple filed a complaint with the watchdog Press Complaints Commission (PCC) after a newspaper published a photograph of their 15-year-old son, Euan, kissing a girl at a Christmas ball. The PCC is a statutory body that administers a code of practice agreed to by editors. Its findings, however, have no legal force.

After scandals surrounding the late Diana, Princess of Wales, Queen Elizabeth II urged the PCC to tighten its approach to privacy. The PCC agreed that Diana's two sons should not become the focus of British media attention while they are still at school.

But last year, an injury to his arm made Prince Harry the subject of tabloid headlines.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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