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A politician's private life

Gary Smith | 10:08 UK time, Wednesday, 10 January 2007

Ruth Kelly’s decision to send her son to a private school brought an avalanche of emails to the BBC. More than 3,000 of you sent your thoughts on the story – some accusing Ms Kelly of hypocrisy; others supporting her decision as a parent.

kelly_getty203.jpgBut some of you questioned whether the BBC should be doing the story at all, saying that how she organises the education of her children is her own business, and that broadcasting rides roughshod over the interests of the child.

So why did we do it?

I think the answer comes partly in the volume of emails. This story raises all sorts of issues which strike a chord with many viewers, listeners and readers – provision for special needs in schools; whether this works best in mainstream or special schools; how the government’s record on this stands.

But it’s also about the rights and wrongs of a cabinet minister and former education secretary - from a party which champions state education – going private for her own children. In some people this rouses strong passions. As a group of our emailers have observed, it can be seen as the difference between what the powerful say and what they do.

Some of you say that a politician’s private life should remain private. But in this information-rich age, it can be argued that’s a privilege which people surrender when they enter public life.

The parent’s one thing; the child’s another. The BBC has no interest in invading the privacy of any child. Indeed we – like most of the rest of the news media – actively try to protect the privacy of children.

But once a story like this is in the public domain – a decision taken by the Daily Mirror - it’s difficult and probably wrong for us to try to put the genie back in the bottle.

Look at it the other way round – what if the BBC had chosen not to broadcast the story? It’s front page news in most newspapers, the lead on other broadcasters, and all over the blogosphere... and the BBC ignores it... Would that have served our audiences well? Or would it have made you angry that we were in some way protecting the people in power?

Is it not rather our job to set the story in its proper context and tell it in a measured, balanced way, allowing you to make your own judgements?


Seeing as Ruth Kelly's actions repeatedly interfere in my private life, and the education of my children, why on earth shouldn't I know and comment on hers?

  • 2.
  • At 11:14 AM on 10 Jan 2007,
  • pat wrote:

so, Gary - your defence is two fold?

1 - she doesn't deserve a private life

2 - everyone else is doing it, so why not us?

well that's that then

This kind of issue really highlights the 'us and them' feeling that I have about politicians. Yes, they claim to be working to make society better, but they wouldn't deem to actively use these public services themselves - what does that tell you? Is it rich vs poor but they can't quite admit it? Yes.

I think the BBC are absolutely right to report on it - this issue will always crop up because politicians will always put needs of their kids before making a political point by sending their offspring to the local (maybe crap?) state school. (Didn't we have all this with Tony Blair's kids?) And the public need to know this in order to keep 'real' about how good education/NHS etc really is. Not good enough for them. So why good enough for us?!

  • 4.
  • At 11:32 AM on 10 Jan 2007,
  • Philip wrote:

You were totally, absolutely, definitely 100% correct to run this story.

If this had been the Tories back in the eighties, Labour would have been up in arms had the story not been covered.

Ruth Kelly is certainly justified in what she has done. And although I don't agree with Lord Goldsmith's decision to drop the Serious Fraud Office 'Saudi' investigation, I can see a reason for it.

What people cannot stand is when the Government says one thing, and does another. 'Do as we say, not as we do' has to be exposed to a searchlight.

Ruth Kelly has a deft balancing-act to perform but her biggest responsibility is towards her child whom she has brought into this world. Naturally her child's interests would take centre-stage in her life and as a mother she has reacted decently and sensibly. As a politician she has weighed the consequences and has tried to toe the party line. In the final analysis her decisions as a caring parent should overide all other considerations especially as she is constantly striving to serve the country admirably.

Ruth Kelly was responsible for the education policies which created a situation where the local schools were incapable - by her own statement - of providing the level of care her child needs.

It's great that she can afford to pay for a private school and I hope the child benefits from that decision but what about those parents and children who can't pay and are left with the dire system Kelly in part create?

  • 7.
  • At 12:26 PM on 10 Jan 2007,
  • Nicholas Dalby wrote:

The BBC's reporting was fair and balanced. The BBC needed to report this story, not just because other stations are reporting it, but because it's a real political story. It's our acting government being hypocrtical. Whilst I overwhelmingly support Kelly's decision to take her child to private education (thanks to the cost of the MP's expenses, i would imagine), it is the right of a responsible broadcaster to show the hypocracy of a government so interested on education reforms. In my opinion, it was the right of Kelly to send her child to private education, the government has given those who cannot afford private education the opportunity for further state funded help (which could be seen as Kelly freeing up state professionals for the sake of those less fortunate). And the beeb had the right to broadcast the story. It's hardly a Kellygate scandal story, but it's human interest. What makes it better that it isn't left there, the beeb then open a public forum so we can discuss their style of broadcasting on such a touchy story. Well done Gary.

  • 8.
  • At 12:27 PM on 10 Jan 2007,
  • Mark wrote:

How typical of the hypocricy of limosine liberals who insist "do as I say, not as I do" and "yes do that but not in my backyard." This is so typical in the US, it looks like it's one more American export Britain has picked up. We won't send a bill for this one UK, it's on the house.

I agree with most of the post. Since I live in America, most of the people [because of the ruling class of Republicans/Democrats] have this mentality.

  • 10.
  • At 01:13 PM on 10 Jan 2007,
  • Adam wrote:

I think you got it spot on in this case. Yes, where Kelly sends her children to school is to some extent her business, but there is absolutely an overwhelming public interest in a story likes this because of what it says about the state education sector: effectively that the person who until recently was running it doesn't trust it.

I'm pleased to note that in all the reporting I saw of the story, I didn't discover any details of the child in question, and you deserve credit for keeping the child out of the story as much as was feasible.

  • 11.
  • At 01:18 PM on 10 Jan 2007,
  • Carolyn Mackay wrote:

The crux of the story is whether the LEA would have been prepared to fund Special Needs provision for any child with special needs similar to Ms Kelly's. If LEA provision isn't adequate, any child - regardless of parents' income - can be sent to an independent school, at tax payer's expense. If Ms Kelly's LEA wasn't able to provide the services requred, then she has simply saved the tax payer £15,000/year (that would have made an interesting story: 'Minister sends child to exclusive school at tax payer's expense').
If, however, the LEA could provide everything the child's statement of needs specified, then Ms Kelly is guilty of hypocrisy, as her party has a track record of excoriating those who choose independent education for their children.

  • 12.
  • At 01:19 PM on 10 Jan 2007,
  • PeeVeeAh wrote:

Of course, the BBC should run with this story! The fact that all of Aunty's tabloid competitors are out there with it, just serves to illustrate its media value. That does not equate to moral value or anything deeper, but the conflict of interest is a true one, isn't it?

If the privileged option available to a senior socialist politician - but not to other citizens - is allowed through on the unquestioned 'nod' then surely this creates a new breed in the 'Animal Farm' of New Labour.

This is no personal attack! Whoever invokes the democracy watcher's opinions will have to expect questioning of their 'bigger picture' allegiance. Deference to the party line might once have been seen as a personal cost to the public servant: "Ah well!"

  • 13.
  • At 01:47 PM on 10 Jan 2007,
  • robbie wrote:

Am I the only person that sees nothing wrong in what Ruth Kelly has done? By paying to send her child to private school, she has saved the British taxpayers the money that would otherwise have been spent on the child's education and freed up a space for another child whose parents choose not (or cannot afford) to send their children to private school. Of course state schools should be adequately funded and equipped, but that doesn't mean it should be compulsory to use them, any more then it should be compulsory to use the NHS instead of paying for private treatment.

  • 14.
  • At 01:49 PM on 10 Jan 2007,
  • Iain Hunter wrote:

An easy rule of thumb to determine to report a story about person in public life is; does it interfere with their job. If the answer is no, in the case of affairs etc then it shouldn't be reported.

Ironically, of course, it is the publication of these stories that leads to a disruption of the public figures job, and many times leads to the end of their careers.

Do unto others as you would have them do unto you

  • 15.
  • At 02:01 PM on 10 Jan 2007,
  • Ken wrote:

You state: “Is it not rather our job to set the story in its proper context and tell it in a measured, balanced way, allowing you to make your own judgements?”

What proper context? The BBC’s chosen context, it would appear. Why can’t you just report events and let us worry about context? This way we can be allowed to make our own judgements

The BBC has had to trawl quite deeply to find critical voices to back its campaign against Ruth Kelly. This is all about Tony Blair and little to do with Ruth Kelly and smacks of the days when they were trying to prematurely unseat John Major’s government. The BBC should stick to reporting and stop campaigning.

  • 16.
  • At 03:10 PM on 10 Jan 2007,
  • john a wrote:

From what I have read on this matter the problem was not the sending of the child to a private school but the REASON she did it. It is apparent that anyone with such a child can apply to have that child sent to a private school (LEA funded). Maybe Ms Kelly could have gone down this route, and despite what has been said, the reason she decided against,was not because of the potential outcry over her using public funds but because of the timeous and complex route to achieve her aim. She took the short cut to save time and because she could afford it - therin lies the hypocrisy!!

When I first heard this story on Today my reaction was "Oh, fer ****'s sake, this isn't a story, drop it."

On PM, a lady with a special needs child explained that there is provision from the state, but that frequently the process required to secure it is unpleasant and wearing, and requires persistence in the face of officials conscious of budgetary considerations. What Ruth Kelly did by forgoing state provision does reduce the burden on the taxpayer (as well as freeing up time to do her day job), but it also removes her from the experience that ordinary people have of government, and so reduces her direct empathy with the consequences of her decisions as a minister.

That was not at all obvious to me from the basic story, and the BBC deserves credit for bringing it out.

  • 18.
  • At 03:55 PM on 10 Jan 2007,
  • Hazel Love wrote:

Surely anyone can send their child to school where they like, and if they can afford to spend the money, then good luck to them.
Labour should be making sure that it's politicians shouldn't NEED to send their children to public schools.

  • 19.
  • At 04:09 PM on 10 Jan 2007,
  • Sam wrote:

[QUOTE]Of course state schools should be adequately funded and equipped, but that doesn't mean it should be compulsory to use them, any more then it should be compulsory to use the NHS instead of paying for private treatment.[/QUOTE]

Robbie 13

No robbie your wrong, it absolutely should be mandatory to use the state system. It is not a issue of cost. As it should be mandatory to use the NHS for life threatening treatment. Sure private healthcare is moral for cosmetic surgery but nothing else.

Why? You may ask. Well why the hell should you have a better chance of physical survival from a desease just because you have more money? And moreover why the hell should your spoilt children who have done nothing more deserving than a child from a council estate get a better basic education and have a better chance of staying in the elite classes?

That is wrong. ALL private education and all non cosmetic private heatlhcare should be banned.

  • 20.
  • At 04:17 PM on 10 Jan 2007,
  • Jonathan wrote:

Yes, the BBC were probably right to cover the story, though I wonder how many of the journalists at the tabloids complaining so vociferously, and yes even at the BBC, actually send their own children to private schools.
I suspect that the answer is most of them, which means I take the so called indignation with a barrel load of salt...

  • 21.
  • At 08:33 PM on 10 Jan 2007,
  • Eleanor wrote:

What strikes me as odd is that from what I have seen no part of the main stream media have discribed what this childs disability is. Now i agree that his privacy is important, but from what i've heard on the grapevine he is dyslexic. I have no intention to demean the severity of dyslexia, I know first hand of how difficult it can be. However 10% of the country are dyslexic. Other sources are saying that the LEA offered to fund the childs attentance at this private school. How can they possibly fund 10% of young people to go to private school?
Secondly, and more significantly, why on earth can the local state school not provide provision for dyslexia?

If it is not dyslexia, then i wonder what it is and why we are not being informed of it? could be completly innocent and none of our business but it seems strange that it is such a secret!

  • 22.
  • At 01:04 AM on 11 Jan 2007,
  • Marcel wrote:

Sam wrote: it absolutely should be mandatory to use the state system.

ALL private education and all non cosmetic private heatlhcare should be banned.

My reaction: that´s quite a totalitarian attitude you got there.

I would always put my kids in a private school because 99 out of a 100 times it´s much better than the state system where kids tend to get inferior education. And from my own experience I know, in the overwhelming majority of public schools the teachers are with few exceptions ideologically slanted to the left. I wouldn´t want my kids growing up being taught the liberal agenda (which is tax the working man, reward the lazy).

  • 23.
  • At 07:06 AM on 11 Jan 2007,
  • Richard Morris wrote:

Many of the replies rehash the arguments around Kelly's decision. That misses the point.

We are talking here about the BBC's decision to run the story. I fully support the BBC in this matter since there is a strong public interest element to the story.

  • 24.
  • At 09:07 AM on 11 Jan 2007,
  • Simon Cooke wrote:

This is an interesting topic.
As I have said many times before, I think of the BBC as just the broadcast version of the tabloids. There is so much evidence of this that I'll just point 1 recent one: The Tom Stephens interview broadcast. Let's not go there !!!
In this case of Ruth Kelly, I think it was right of the BBC to cover it. After all, Ms Kelly was elected by the people & she is answerable to the electorate. This is especially the case when the subject is a public service like education.
Now, as to the other matter as to whether she was right to send her son to a private school, I think that's entirely her choice & as it's her money, more so. By "voting" with her wallet, she's displaying her lack of faith in the state school.
So, is there any chance that Tony Blair will tell us if Leo had the single MMR jab or the 3 separate jabs? Not on your nelly !!!

Richard Morris #23

Many of the replies rehash the arguments around Kelly's decision. That misses the point.

I don't think it's that simple. It's of public interest because of the arguments, which parallel the issues we all face.

I don't see how you can tell whether a story is of public interest without getting into its content.

  • 26.
  • At 12:17 PM on 11 Jan 2007,
  • Deirdre wrote:

The BBC would demonstrate its own integrity and consistency were it to publish a list of those BBC reporters and editors who educate their children privately. Or is this a little too close to home?

  • 27.
  • At 01:36 PM on 11 Jan 2007,
  • Warren wrote:

I'm suspicious that this is another example of politicians being gone after at a personal level, with some detail of their private life spun by parts of the media hostile to the government in order to generate coverage and analysis which creates a mood of disenchantment amongst the public. The whole issue of Tony Blair going on holiday is another recent example.
Rooting out corruption is one thing, but when the media root around in politician's private lives for anything they can suggest is bad, where does that leave us? Many of the best and brightest who ought to be leading the country avoid public service altogether.

  • 28.
  • At 01:41 PM on 11 Jan 2007,
  • Kate wrote:

I thought the BBC News coverage was so obviously biased it was disgusting. Of course the BBC should have covered the story, but taking a second to examine how as a mother Ruth Kelly must have felt just for putting the needs of her child before public perceptions and their potential damage to her career might have led to more balanced coverage. Fiona Bruce might as well have stood up and shouted 'Hypocrite!' at the camera - the content of the report was that blatantly anti-Ruth Kelly.

  • 29.
  • At 03:30 PM on 11 Jan 2007,
  • Mark wrote:

Of course the report is of public interest - in exactly the same way as the fact that the Deputy PM used gas-guzzling Jags rather than public transport is of public interest.

What is equally interesting is the exceptional number of children who seem to have "special educational needs" according to the latest league tables. My former school in Bishop Auckland (just down the road from Mr Blair's constituency) seems to have around 1/3 of the pupils eligible for GCSE with "special educational needs" and taking the other 2 schools in the town into account still leaves this at around a quarter of all the pupils.

Perhaps this label is simply being used by schools to explain poor performance and by parents (such as Ms Kelly) to get their kids out of a failing system.

  • 30.
  • At 04:49 PM on 11 Jan 2007,
  • Tom wrote:

I don't believe that there is the slightest doubt that the BBC was right to cover the story. It was a story about a senior politican, not about a wannabe celebrity, and it was on the front pages of both tabloids and broadsheets. We should probably know the types of schools to which our politicians send their children, however the manner in which this has been reported is troubling. The charge from most accusers is usually not that no politician should send her child to an independent school but one of "hypocrisy", i.e. that a LABOUR cabinet minister should not send her child to an independent school. But there could be broad alignment for any one person to stress the importance of education, to fight for increased state funding, to campaign to reduce poverty and inequality, and also to choose to spend your own money on additional education. So whatever Ms Kelly's strange views on faith schools or city academies, in this case "hypocrisy" is probably a false charge, and objective reporting of the incident should point this out.

  • 31.
  • At 06:16 PM on 11 Jan 2007,
  • Nick wrote:

You said, "Look at it the other way round – what if the BBC had chosen not to broadcast the story? ...would it have made you angry that we were in some way protecting the people in power?"

The answer is, no, on the contrary I would have been impressed that, for once, the BBC was subscribing to that fast-vanishing but once-prized British virtue, "minding your own business".

  • 32.
  • At 07:12 PM on 11 Jan 2007,
  • Glyn, London wrote:

According to BBC journalist Gary Smith's article above: "But it’s also about the rights and wrongs of a cabinet minister and former education secretary - from a party which champions state education – going private for her own children."

But that's exactly what she hasn't done, i.e. she hasn't gone private for her own children. Three of her four children are still in state schools. Children with special needs have always been sent to private schools with the local council paying the bill, the only difference this time is that Kelly is paying the bill herself. And for this she should be censured?

  • 33.
  • At 08:59 PM on 11 Jan 2007,
  • Jean wrote:

Public life comes at a price. This mom's decisions become public domain the minute she entered public life. I do not the see the problem with the BBC reporting, sorry. I want to know at what time George W Bush goes to bed. Yes. ;D

  • 34.
  • At 01:01 AM on 12 Jan 2007,
  • Mark Bestford wrote:

As a parent of a dyslexic child I 100% support the BBC's reporting of this story.

The story is twofold. On the one hand Ruth Kelly is sending her son to a school that specialises in teaching dyslexic children. My question would be why the best school is a private school? Why is there not a state school that specialises in dyslexia available in every county? The reason is that as education secretary Ruth Kelly stated that there was more than adequate provision for educating dyslexic children within mainstream state schools. Her decision has proven that she does not believe that to be true. That is the true story here and why it was right to put the story in the public domain. The hypocrisy is not that she has sent her child to a private school, it the fact that she has shown that for years she has lied to the nation about the state of SEN provision in this country.

  • 35.
  • At 01:25 AM on 12 Jan 2007,
  • Mark Bestford wrote:

Rereading some of the comments I'd like to point out that if the LEA did offer to fund Ruth Kelly's son at private school it would be unprecedented. The LEA will always offer choice, but it's choice within the state sector. To get the kind of funding offered to Ruth Kelly you must first prove that the state sector cannot provide for your child's educational needs and that means taking the LEA to a SEN tribunal at your own cost. Many children with dyslexia come from families with a history of dyslexia, which means a high probability of coming from a poor background. As a result this means they cannot afford the thousands of pounds required to force the LEA into funding their childs education. The tribunal is not a given conclusion either, not everyone is successful and as such it's not an easy decision to make so as a result most dyslexic children will not be offered extra funding. An interesting side story to this whole thing as well, it's estimated that 10% of the population is dyslexic. Has anyone considered the fact that the number of children diagnosed with dyslexia is far lower than that figure? Or that the majority are actually diagnosed once they reach secondary school? In many schools dyslexia is not recognised as it must be diagnosed by reading and writing tests. But how do you diagnose someone who can't read or write? How do you teach a dyslexic child how to read and write? To start with you must first diagnose them so that you can tailor their education to their needs, but you can't diagnose them till you have taught them to read and write. It's a vicious circle brought about by the fact that SENCOs do not have to be trained to recognise dyslexia or to teach dyslexic children. It is my opinion that EVERY primary school should have at least one teacher who can not only diagnose dyslexia at an early age but who is also trained to teach dyslexic children. After all, a small school of 600 will have 60 dyslexic children in it (of admittedly varying degrees). The very fact that those 60 children will most likely not be diagnosed until the age of 11 is Ruth Kelly's real failing.

  • 36.
  • At 04:43 AM on 12 Jan 2007,
  • James Little wrote:

Um...I've noticed the "it was on the front pages of every major newspaper" argument for the Ruth Kelly debate was almost exactly the same as the argument used in the "Saddam execution images" debate...are you guys cutting and pasting or have you just got no independent journalistic ethics left at all? I'm an Aussie and we're (mercifully) spared the tabloid press in this country, but we've always been lead to believe that the BBC was a bit classier than the Fleet Street muckrakers...our mistake it seems.

  • 37.
  • At 11:04 AM on 12 Jan 2007,
  • Andrzej wrote:

My simplistic view is that providing Ms Kelly's neighbours in Tower Hamlets have the same facilities open to their children's education then there is no issue here.

  • 38.
  • At 11:31 AM on 12 Jan 2007,
  • David McNulty wrote:

I think the bbc have not covered this story as much as I would have liked.

Ms Kelly is a former education minister and mp whose actions have had a direct negative impact on special needs provison in this country. She has stood up and defended special education even in the light of the all parties report last year which concluded sen provison in this country was largley unfit for the purpose and said it was failing a generation of special children and their families.

So why if all well within the state system is she opting out so her son can get the help so many families and children are crying out for!

She is not saving the country money, we pay her wages and if she had tried to get her son statement she wouldnt have stood a chance! She also is saying Tower Hamlets does not have the expertise to teach dsylexia her son needs to florish!
A contradiction or what!

Government policy persistantly is failing to ring post funding for sen both in education, health and social services. Until it does things will continue to decline.

Put Ms Kelly and Lord Adonis( his interview with Jermy Vine about the new league tables and his dismissal of value added showed a real lack of knowledge last nigh on tv) on question time that would make an interesting programme!

  • 39.
  • At 01:43 PM on 12 Jan 2007,
  • Paul Burgess wrote:

Gary Smith's last sentence was 'Is it not rather our job to set the story in its proper context and tell it in a measured, balanced way, allowing you to make your own judgements?

Is this what you did Gary? If so, I must have missed it. Ruth Kelly did no more than thousands of parents have done - work with the local authority to find the best provision for her child's severe disability. In thousands of cases over decades the end result is a child is found a place in a 'private school' - which frequently means run by a charity- because the LA hasn't got that highly specialist provision. There was no hypocrisy in Ruth Kelly doing this, but your reporting fuelled the igorance and prejudice revealed in the comments above. My complaint is about the integrity of the journalism, not whether you reported the story. I still hope that the BBC, for all the bad feeling there is towards this Government, could stand above the tabloids for accurate, balanced reporting. This time you failed to reach that standard.

  • 40.
  • At 12:03 AM on 13 Jan 2007,
  • doc bob wrote:

Whilst I applaud her actions as a parent I just whish she'd had the chuzpa to honestly tell the people that have employed over her time in goverment the real reasons. Not too much to ask I think.

  • 41.
  • At 06:50 AM on 13 Jan 2007,
  • Richard Morris wrote:

David no.25 quotes me

'Many of the replies rehash the arguments around Kelly's decision. That misses the point.'

and replies
'I don't think it's that simple. It's of public interest because of the arguments, which parallel the issues we all face.
I don't see how you can tell whether a story is of public interest without getting into its content.'

I agree. The trouble is that many of the replies don't then go onto to discuss the public interest point which means that the blog becomes cluttered up with unhelpful postings. If you want to discuss Kelly's decision and nothing else - then post elsewhere.

  • 42.
  • At 11:58 AM on 14 Jan 2007,
  • Niall wrote:

Of course the BBC were right to run the story as they did, thats what I pay my licence fee for.
As to Ms Kelly playing the "a mother has to do what a mother has to do" card, she is spending £15,000 of my money whichever way you spin it, so get out of politics, get a proper job and you can spend your money on bingo cards for all I care.

  • 43.
  • At 10:07 PM on 16 Jan 2007,
  • ROY TERRY wrote:

You miss the point. The issue is that it is Ruth Kelly's child who is entitled to privacy. Newspapers exploiting the story are clearly in breach of the Press Complaints Commission's code of practice and I suggest that you, like them are also in vreach of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

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