The hand that rocked the inhabitants of No 10

Media - Ian Hargreaves

The case of Cherie Blair versus the Mail on Sunday, Ros Mark and a London literary agent is not exactly overflowing with edifying conduct.

Behind the proclaimed motives of all the parties involved lurks a sickly whiff of cant. The Blairs are right to want to keep their children's lives out of the newspapers, perhaps even "to do whatever it takes to protect the legitimate privacy of our family life".

The Mail on Sunday proudly flies the banner of press freedom, denouncing the scandalously easy use of orders by judges in their pyjamas to restrain publication.

Jonathan Harris, the literary agent, may not be one of that trade's more scrupulous representatives, but was he not merely doing his job? Asked to find a buyer for Ros Mark's book, he tested the serialisation market first, in order to lubricate the hoped-for deal with a book publisher. I do not know how you test the market for any piece of writing without handing over some copy.

Ros Mark, Downing Street's first nanny and would-be "social historian" is, the Blairs tell us, a wonderful person. Whatever blame they now attach to her and her mother, any nanny who lasts over four years in one job is the object of unusually warm regard.

Nor do I find it wholly unreasonable that she should have imagined the confidentiality clause she accepted in her contract with the Blairs allowed her some latitude to make unmalicious public use of some of the information picked up during her period with them. After all, most executive employment contracts contain restrictions a good deal more onerous than those likely to have been agreed by Mark, but that does not stop the signatories hot-footing it to better-paid jobs with competing organisations and making profitable use of the knowledge gained with the abandoned employer. Nor have ex-ministers shown notable restraint in the speed at which they have despatched their memoirs to the presses. Mo Mowlam has started her negotiations while still in office.

These things are, however, very much the best that can be said of the parties involved. Against each of them sits a mountain of queries. Although the Blairs have sought to draw a line about press coverage of their children, they continue to play the game of personal image manipulation for political gain with a vengeance that invites retribution. How, for example, does the picture on page 17 of the banned edition of the Mail on Sunday - showing Chris Evans patting Cherie's bump at the Brit Awards - sit with the fierceness of their stance about personal privacy?

It is also true, as the Mail on Sunday claims, that the injuncted material includes nothing at all about the Blair children. I have read it. The content of the book may be different - but the judge was not asked to rule on that. He was to adjudicate on the balance of interest between the draconian action of stopping the presses of a national newspaper and an alleged breach of employment contract.

The Blairs, advised by Alastair Campbell and their house lawyer Lord Falconer, over-reacted, displaying a worrying disregard for the seriousness of the act of censorship. You may have noticed that, at much the same time, a certain Mr Al Fayed was mocked out of court for pursuing a similar restraining order about a book written by one of his former employees.

About the literary agent, there is not much more to say. He must, it is whispered, have been involved in some illicit transmission of text to the newspaper. Maybe, maybe not.

As for the 30-year-old Ros Mark, she has certainly behaved naively, if not duplicitously. Had she discussed her supposedly charitable project with her former employers, she would have been told to come off it. If she adores the Blairs, as she says she did, her conduct makes no sense.

But what about the Mail on Sunday? How comfortable can Britain's most strident advocate of "family values" really be with its role as catalyst for such foolish and dishonest behaviour and its presentation in a way calculated to assault the Blairs' protective instincts about their family?

Although fragments of the injuncted material contribute in a gossipy way to well-worn themes about the personality-based factions within new Labour, this is not how the Mail on Sunday pitched its story: it was sold as a "family secrets" scoop. What the Mail had in fact bought (or just possibly stolen) was a piece of banal, access journalism of the type that has built such substantial readerships for magazines such as Hello! and OK!.

It would be wrong, however, to conclude that because the copy was devoid of serious public interest, the Mail's right to publish should be set at nought. Many of the most important battles about press freedom have been fought to defend worse scoundrels than Associated Newspapers - think of the case of Larry Flint's Hustler magazine.

The nanny's story may make an unpromising test-case, but the Mail will be right to pursue it.

As Harold Evans reminded us in a recent lecture, the right of American newspapers to publish without risk of legal restraint was won in the United States in 1931, when the Supreme Court ruled that the state of Minnesota had acted unconstitutionally in closing a newspaper for its attacks on "Jewish gangsters".

In the words of Chief Justice Hughes: "The rights of the best of men are secured only as the rights of the vilest and most abhorrent are protected."

Ian Hargreaves is professor of journalism at Cardiff University

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Ken, the great conductor