As a fly to wanton journalists

Observations on Cherie Blair

This is what we, the media, are doing. We are making of public life a goldfish bowl from which, at intervals, we pluck a fish and put it under a white hot lamp. If it survives, it may be tossed back. If not . . . not.

We treat men and women in public life as characters against whom we can rail, when they are judged (by us!) to have departed from some ethical code that we amend daily to suit our purpose. They are stripped of all attributes of humanity, shorn of all right to understanding of frailty and error.

Cherie Blair, in the affair of the conman who helped her buy two Bristol flats, behaved foolishly. On a gentle judgement, she was impulsive; on a harsh one, careless. But her real folly was that she was not mindful of the golden rule - don't get caught. She had forgotten, or more likely ceased to care, that we, the media, are carrion, and that she lives in a goldfish bowl.

To cease to care about the media is madness in her position. It is to court the disaster that is now upon her, and which may damage her career, her son's time at university, and relationships all around her. She has hated the media ever since her husband rose far enough in politics for them both to become targets. She and Tony Blair hate the six-figure-a-year columnists who make populist pap of the Blairs' six-figure salaries; hate the men and women who mock the Blairs' ambition, while they themselves shift from paper to paper in search of better salaries; hate the narrowing of the public spectrum to trivia cut with malice; hate the craven inability of broadcasters, who proclaim their attachment to public service, to defy the temptation of the vacuous cruelty that goes by the name of sturdy criticism.

They are right in their hatreds: but where Blair has ingested a stony self-discipline and is able to mask his contempt, his wife, less constrained and less disciplined, does not curb her instinct to lash out. Or, in this instance, to deny facts which are then forced from her with a fanfare of self-congratulatory pseudo-horror.

Pseudo? That is being kind. If the horror expressed is real, you wonder at the judgement of those who express it. The enormity of the apparatus they bring up to shell misjudgements with as little purchase on the public interest as Cherie Blair's friendships and her buying of a flat for her son leaves no room for the description of anything approaching a true scandal.

On 9 December, three columnists - one from the right, one from the left, one of no fixed ideology - considered Cherie's case. From the right, Melanie Phillips (Daily Mail) wrote that the Blair administration is characterised by "chaos and venality", and that the affair "goes to the heart of our diminished political procedure and the corrosion of our public life". From the left, Paul Routledge (Daily Mirror) saw the scandal "getting very, very close to the heart of our government" and agreed that No 10 is a place of "stinking corruption".

From indeterminate territory, Tony Parsons (also Daily Mirror) recalled Marie Antoinette, leaving the people "to rot" as she swanned around Versailles. Likewise Cherie: "In 21st-century Britain, our public services are on the verge of collapse, our transport system is paralysed, waves of economic migrants are pouring into the country . . . meanwhile Cherie has an important appointment to keep with her feng shui expert." It may be that this is not meant to be taken seriously. Perhaps we should see it as being like the antics of children who torture animals, intent on their own pleasure, indifferent to pain or harm.

But these writers are what we have in Britain - as guardians of our liberties, as watchdogs of our values, as underpinners of our democracy.

Charlie Whelan, page 62