Tuesday 23 October 2018

Airing dirty laundry in public is never good for the children

Anna Carey

There are several places in which it's appropriate to discuss the mental state of the mother of your children, but a hugely popular live television programme isn't one of them.

This thought didn't seem to cross the mind of Brian McFadden, however, when he appeared on the Late Late Show last week. McFadden seemed happy to air his dirty laundry in public, discussing the erratic behaviour of his ex-wife Kerry Katona until a visibly troubled Ryan Tubridy asked him why on earth he was still living in Australia when his children were living with a mentally ill drug user on the other side of the world.

As McFadden offered up some fairly unconvincing excuses (apparently his music career in Australia is so dazzlingly successful and important he can't leave the country), horrified viewers all over Ireland wondered what on earth he thought he was doing. Who could possibly think it was appropriate to discuss such a fraught family situation in public? Who could think it was helpful to either his children or his own cause? The answer is, well, a celebrity.

Despite what some fathers' rights activists would have you believe, the vast majority of custody cases -- at least 90pc -- are settled peacefully out of court. But those that are contested are, inevitably, enormously upsetting for all involved. Family law cases are held in camera. This privacy is understood to be important because children are involved, children who have been caught up in a traumatic situation that is not of their making. They are the court's -- and, one would think, their parents' -- highest priority.

But often, each party is so upset and angry with his or her ex that they lash out, regardless of whether this is in the best interest of their children. So it's not surprising that celebrities do the same thing. It's just that in their case, the world is listening. And crucially, in many cases, the celebrities seem to actively court the attention.

When Denise Richards and Charlie Sheen split up in 2007, Sheen made a public statement in which he harshly criticised his ex's decision to include their children in a new reality show, and urged people to boycott the programme. Whether his outrage was justified or not -- and there are plenty of ethical issues surrounding the inclusion of minors on reality programmes -- his choice of a public forum seems ill judged. Surely these discussions belong behind closed doors, rather than in gossip websites and trashy celebrity magazines.

But famous people live in a world where ordinary rules don't apply. If you live your entire life in the public eye, if the birth of your children is celebrated by a spread in OK (or, for the more high-end celebs, an interview in Vanity Fair), then perhaps talking about your children in a crisis seems completely normal and indeed constructive -- after all, the public loves you.

When McFadden appeared on the Late Late Show, he seemed to think he was an innocent victim (his ex, who suffers from bi-polar disorder and had a pretty appalling childhood herself, was portrayed as a mad villain). But many celebrities are used to getting their own way all the time. Infantalised by a culture that treats them like pampered babies, they act like spoiled children themselves.

It's easy to point the finger at these selfish grown-up brats, but they are a product of their times. We live in a self-help culture in which everyone is encouraged to tell their personal stories in order to heal and grow. But our stories don't just belong to us. They are also the stories of our families, and when we focus on our own pain and share our stories with the world, we ignore their right to privacy. And when it comes to famous families, the media has to share the blame. In the past, the kids of celebrities were generally left alone by the press. Now, however, there are entire websites devoted to what Suri Cruise and Shiloh Jolie-Pitt are wearing. Celebrity children have become public property -- so when things go wrong in their families, the gloves are off.

Alec Baldwin and Kim Basinger's custody battle for their daughter Ireland was so vicious that when it was finally resolved in 2004, it was under the condition that neither party violate a gag order that prevented them talking publicly about the case -- a ruling which highlights the fact that this public nastiness is bad for children.

But three years later, a voicemail Baldwin left for Ireland was somehow leaked to the media. The message, in which Baldwin angrily chastised his daughter for missing a visit to him, was so nasty that his visitation rights were temporarily suspended; they were restored when he apologised. But how did the private message reach the press? Baldwin accused Basinger, but the court couldn't prove it.

Many were shocked by Baldwin's nastiness to his daughter, and by the idea that Basinger could have made such a message public. But the media outlets who gleefully reported the story didn't seem to consider the fact that in highlighting her father's misbehaviour they were further humiliating an innocent girl.

And the media ensures some celebrities are forced to do battle in public whether they like or not. Take Britney Spears, a young woman who was constantly harassed by paparazzi during attempts to win custody of her young sons. She was pursued by photographers on her way to court dates, and demonised as a bad mother by the same tabloids and websites that paid the paparazzi whose abusive behaviour was clearly exacerbating her mental anguish.

The breakdown of a once-happy family is always painful. But the children of celebrities, who never asked to be in the public eye, have to come first. There are plenty of famous former couples, such as Bruce Willis and Demi Moore, or Reese Witherspoon and Ryan Philippe, who seem to have worked out mature and amicable ways of handling child custody.

"The most important thing is to be a grown-up and not let any kind of feelings affect how you deal with your children," said Witherspoon in a recent interview. Words parents -- celebrity or otherwise -- would do well to heed.

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