It’s pretty much the perfect Daily Mail story, with opportunities for its readers to express snorting derision and hatred for gay people, left wing politicians, the ‘nanny state’, political correctness, and social workers. It’s only really foreigners and malingering dole scroungers missing, isn’t it? If only the adoptive parents could have been disabled asylum seekers too…
The basic facts of the story, shorn of sensationalism, are these. Two young children, aged 3 and 2 at the time the whole two-year process began, were unable to continue living with their mother because of her addiction to heroin. The children’s maternal grandparents, aged 57 and 44 at the time, stepped in to look after them. Social services were concerned that this could not be a permanent solution, because of the age and health of the grandparents. The grandfather, now aged 59, suffers from angina, and his wife, 46, has diabetes. The children had initially been placed in foster care, but are now due to be adopted, and social workers have taken the decision to place them with a male homosexual couple.
The Daily Mail’s objections centre on two main points. Firstly, they are unhappy that the children have been removed from their grandparents at all. Secondly they are concerned that the children have been placed with a homosexual couple. Let’s look at these points in turn.
First up, the age of the grandparents. This story is playing out in Edinburgh, where the average age of death for men is as low as 69 years. In other words, if the children’s grandfather died at the average age, the two children would be just 15 and 14 years old when he died. It is worth bearing in mind that the grandfather had already, at the age of 57, required treatment for a heart condition, and this would seem to be legitimate grounds to fear that he might die earlier than average. When Peter Harris questions why the grandparents are considered too old to raise the children, I can only assume he has not taken into account the fact that the children’s grandfather is very likely to be dead before they’ve even left secondary school.
Simple life expectancy is not the only issue when it comes to older people caring for children, of course. Would a sick and elderly father-figure really be able to provide the sort of firm and unwavering discipline that the Daily Mail feels is such an important and undervalued part of child rearing? Then there are the issues surrounding finance. Would the family be able to cope financially when the grandfather retires in only 6 years time? (Surely the Daily Mail can’t be saying that it’s OK to set aside these concerns on the basis that the state will provide? Aren’t they usually strongly opposed to such ‘irresponsibility’?) Questions are also frequently raised as to the extent to which children being looked after by older people who are not in the best of health will be able to enjoy a full range of activities. Strangely enough, none of these issues seem to be being discussed in this case.
The Daily Mail’s outrage is based on the assumption that, just because they have a biological connection to the children, the grandparents would make exemplary parents. We have, of course, very little information on which to reach a judgement on this matter, and certainly a whole lot less than the social workers involved in the case will have had. One salient fact does nag at me, however.
The couple’s own daughter is a heroin addict. Given the evidence that one child entrusted to their care has emerged with serious substance-abuse issues, would it really be wise for social services to trust to luck that the grandparents would do better second time around? What, I wonder, would the reaction of the Daily Mail have been if there were no homosexual angle to the story? I can’t imagine a story about Edinburgh social services handing the care of vulnerable children to a late-middle-aged man in poor health who had already raised one drug addict daughter would have been particularly positive.
But of course there is a homosexual angle. The implication of the main story appears to be that placing children with same-sex couples may be acceptable, if there is no ‘better’ option available, but that it should always be a last resort. The paper seems especially exercised by the fact that heterosexual couples who had been approved for adoption were not automatically given ‘first dibs’ on the children.
They seem not to have taken into account that the social workers in this case, had they prioritised heterosexuals on the basis of their sexual orientation, would have been breaking the law. If the Mail wishes to object to this (and it would seem they do) then they should be directing their anger at the Scottish parliament (which ducked the issue, and asked Westminster to legislate on it) and the UK government. It is unlike the Daily Mail to miss an opportunity to kick the government, so this oversight seems surprising, unless the paper didn’t want to draw attention to the fact that many Conservative MPs (including their leader, David Cameron) also voted in favour of allowing gay adoption.
This ‘oversight’ is at least corrected by Melanie Phillips. Some of you may be familiar with Melanie Phillips’ work, in which case you will be aware that she is not known for a measured and conciliatory approach in her writing. If others of you are not, the sub-heading to her opinion piece on this issue may provide some clues: ‘To place children with two gay men when an adoptive mother and father are available, just to uphold a brutal dogma, is a sickening assault on family life.’
Ms Phillips takes the opportunity to rehearse once again her oft-stated opposition to anything more than the most grudging tolerance for those who practise the homosexual ‘lifestyle’. She also raises again the issue of research which ‘proves’ that children do best when they are raised by two heterosexual parents. To her credit, she explicitly acknowledges that the data is too sparse, and the flaws in the research too great, to allow any firm conclusions to be drawn from it, although it is my understanding she has only begun to do this since being heavily criticised for placing too great an emphasis upon it previously. The point is largely irrelevant, anyway, since outside the paragraphs detailing the limitations of the research, she proceeds on the assumption that the unsuitability of homosexuals to be parents is a matter of established fact.
It should be noted that Ms Phillips ire is not reserved for homosexual parents, since she regards single parents and other unorthodox parenting arrangements as just as bad:
children need to be brought up by the two people ‘who made me’ – or, in adoptive households, in a family which closely replicates that arrangement.
Where that does not happen, the child’s deepest sense of his or her identity as a human being is at some level damaged.
So children raised by single parents and same-sex couples don’t think they’re human? What do they think they are? A designer poodle? A camping stove? A small plastic model of the Eiffel Tower?
Taking the piss out of Melanie Phillips is an amusing occupation, although she makes it too easy – it’s like shooting fish in a barrel. But underneath the barely coherent venom-spewing, there is a small glimmer of a valid point. I’d agree that children are better off for having strong, positive role-models from both genders. Not because I think they won’t be human if they don’t get them (or because they’ll ‘turn gay’), but because they’ll end up finding it difficult to interact socially and professionally with a gender they know little about. I’m very far from being an expert on the subject, but as I understand it, same-sex couples who want to adopt have to demonstrate to social services how they will ensure the presence of opposite sex role models in their children’s lives before they’re approved for adoption. That seems like a sensible precaution to me.
The truth of it is there will have been all kinds of sensible precautions involved in social services’ handling of the case. They won’t have placed the children with a gay couple because of some ‘brutal dogma’, or because they’re more concerned with ‘political correctness’ than they are the welfare of the children. They’ll have chosen them because a whole range of factors indicate that the gay couple were the most appropriate match for these particular children. The hysteria displayed by the Daily Mail really is breathtaking. Amanda Platell’s description of ‘the Stasi-like approach of modern social services’ might actually be funny, if it didn’t betray a shocking lack of familiarity with what the Stasi actually did.
The question has to be asked: what would the media have social services do? If they intervene when they fear children may be at risk of harm, they’re brutal agents of a repressive state. But, as the hysteria surrounding Baby P shows, if they err on the side of caution and don’t intervene, they’re worse than the actual perpetrators of murder and child abuse are. It might be nice if the Daily Mail occasionally kept its attack-dogs kennelled long enough to print an editorial explaining in detail their suggestions for putting everything right – but, of course, that will never happen.
In my opinion, the Daily Mail is a truly loathsome little rag. Like its tabloid fellow-travellers, it disfigures our national discourse with its ceaseless outpouring of venomous bile and naked hatred for everything and everyone that’s even the slightest bit different or unusual. It deliberately targets people who can’t answer back (like social workers who are pledged to uphold client confidentiality), or people who are on the margins of society and are vulnerable to attack. It’s a narrow-minded, nasty-minded bully.
It’s very easy to get discouraged or disheartened by the popularity of the Mail, but the truth is, it’s dying. Like all the print media, in 20-30 years time (if it takes that long…) it won’t exist, except possibly as an internet site. And at that point, what it says won’t matter anymore. Only people who already share its opinions will seek it out. This is what happens on the web – communities of like-minded individuals form around sites, but nobody else has even heard of them. Websites may be huge, they may attract a few million hits a day, but they will never have the ability to dominate national (and international) discourse in the way that the print media does.
At the moment, the print media is dangerous, not because of the numbers of readers it has – only a tiny, tiny fraction of the population as a whole read the Daily Mail – but because of the exaggerated attention that’s paid to it. Politicians and broadcasters allow the print editors and their proprietors to set the news agenda, but someday soon, that’s going to change. Someday soon people will realise that the aggressive, vitriolic, change-phobic media have always been out of step with genuine popular opinion, and that they directly speak for only the tiniest of tiny minorities. And when that happens, and the press barons are no longer able to over-emphasise minority hatreds, we’ll finally be able to see that actually we’re lucky enough to live in a country where most people are decent, and caring, and tolerant, and are repelled and appalled by vicious, bullying hatred.