Sometimes I wonder why I buy the weekend papers. On Sunday I felt particularly rotten after reading three truly negative, depressing stories.
On the front page of The Sunday Times was Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s First Minister. She revealed, for the first time, that at the age of 40 she suffered a miscarriage. She decided, finally, to tell the story because of the bizarre way in which media commentators insist that female politicians choose between having children and developing their career. Without any sense of irony, some simultaneously imply that there’s something wrong or incomplete about them if they’re childless: remember Angela Leadsom’s comments about Theresa May?
Until she told her story, Sturgeon had found herself judged to have sacrificed family for her political career. A bloke might be applauded for such single-mindedness: a woman is criticised.
Sturgeon observed that she couldn’t know whether she would have become First Minister if that pregnancy had been successful. She told her story with dignity and candour and, at the same time, without rancour. In doing so she shone a harsh light on the kind of personal attacks which are nowadays an everyday part of life for politicians.
To my surprise, I find I’m defending politicians. I may have little patience with them, their vanities or their foibles: but high-profile women shouldn’t be targeted for this kind of treatment. Witness also the continuing harassment of members of the Labour Party (particularly MPs) who don’t belong to the Corbynista wing.
Next came an exposé (supposedly) of the fact that the Bishop of Grantham, Nicholas Chamberlain, is in a long-term same-sex relationship. The media were full of discussions about the broader issue of gay clergy within the Church of England, let alone gay marriages. We might argue it’s a debate that’s long overdue: but it only started because of the personal harassment of Grantham’s Bishop who, it turned out, has never made a secret of his sexuality. So it never was a scoop.
These two episodes are examples, to my mind, of media-created intrusion and hurt in the lives of public figures.
But we don’t need to rely on the media to wreck lives: people can do it on their own. Also in The Sunday Times I read that a Muslim headteacher, who has been honoured by the Queen and whose school, Waverley in Birmingham, has been rated “outstanding” by Ofsted in its last three inspections, is being attacked via “anonymous vexatious letters” sent to him, Birmingham City Council, the Department for Education and Ofsted.
The reason for the attacks? In stark contrast to some involved in the so-called Trojan Horse scandal in Birmingham schools, Kamil Hanif OBE has been actively promoting equality rights and liberal values: he is also encouraging non-Muslim children to join his secular school, whose 1754 students are mostly Muslim.
Are we in 2016, or lurching back to the 1950s? A progressive liberal head teacher is persecuted: commentators suggest that a woman can’t be a mother and pursue a successful high-powered public career; and the Church of England still pretends that people within its ranks aren’t gay.
I believe passionately that UK society is fundamentally – can remain and should get even better at being – tolerant, liberal and at peace with itself. But it doesn’t help itself when the kind of journalism that so often does a good job of uncovering hypocrisy in public life falls too easily into the trap of intruding on personal lives and even on private hurt and grief.
“Something is rotten in the state of Denmark,” remarks Marcellus in Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
Right now I feel there’s something pretty rotten in the UK. But, beyond shouting impotently, I don’t know what ordinary, right-thinking people can do about it.
Answers on a postcard.