By Kevin Sullivan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, February 17, 2009
LONDON, Feb. 16 The sweet, round face of the "babyfather" stares back from the newspaper pages.
Little Alfie is 13 and looks years younger. Yet there he is, a 4-foot-tall father on the hospital bed cuddling his newborn baby daughter, the child of his 15-year-old girlfriend, Chantelle.
Those simple facts are sad enough. But now throw in that Alfie and Chantelle's parents have 15 children between them, that the families are getting paid tens of thousands of dollars to sell their story to the tabloids, that 10 film companies are jostling to make the movie, and that at least two other boys claim that they may have fathered the girl.
Suddenly Britain is wondering when exactly their country became an episode of "The Jerry Springer Show."
"This is a modern-day fable of British life," Nick Ferrari, a popular London radio host, said on his talk show Monday morning. "What an unwholesome mix."
Whether Alfie Patten and Chantelle Steadman are a symbol of something rotten at the core of British society is up for debate. Several commentators have pointed out that teen pregnancy is hardly new, and hardly unique to Britain.
Alfie and Chantelle, they argue, are news only because Alfie looks nearly as cherubic as his baby daughter. And the babyfather photo is exactly the type the tabloids love to splash on days when Prince Harry isn't doing something ridiculous.
But still, the Alfie and Chantelle show is dominating the news these days, and causing lots of soul-searching about where these kids came from, where they are going, and what it all says about British life.
Melanie Phillips, a columnist in the Daily Mail, wrote on Monday that it was a fitting tale "for our tragically degraded times."
Phillips noted that Britain has the highest rate of teen pregnancy in Western Europe. The U.K.-based Family Planning Association said that, based on a 2001 UNICEF study, Britain's rate of teen births was triple that of France and double that of Germany (although still half the rate in the United States).
Phillips blamed that on a breakdown in family and a "profound loss of the very notions of self-restraint and boundaries of behavior."
She said sex education in Britain lacks a moral component, so that children are "taught to treat sex a bit like bungee-jumping or paragliding -- to have fun doing it, but to take precautions to avoid getting hurt."
The media's role in the saga is being scrutinized, starting with tabloids that pay for scandal.
The Sun, Britain's biggest-selling newspaper, first reported the story Friday, publishing the photo of Alfie and baby Maisie snoozing in her red-and-white-striped sleeper.
Many British papers routinely pay for news stories, and there were reports that the Sun paid up to 25,000 pounds, or about $35,000, for the photos and story.
Alfie's parents have since hired public relations specialist Max Clifford to help sell their story to other papers, magazines, television programs and moviemakers.
That relationship was on quirky display Sunday when Alfie's father, Dennis Patten, appeared outside the home of his estranged wife, where Alfie lives. He wore a red rubber devil mask with horns and held up a bright yellow sign that said: "No comment. Ring Max."
Critics are wondering about the effects of a celebrity-obsessed culture in which youngsters are taught to worship fame, and celebrity is a function of airtime rather than talent.
Ferrari spoke with Clifford on his radio program Monday, asking him about fears expressed by some that all the publicity would encourage other children to think of baby-making as a cheap ticket to fame and fortune.
"Of course it's a danger," Clifford said.
He said the more pressing immediate problem was to get a DNA paternity test, after publication of interviews over the weekend with two other boys, ages 14 and 16, who said they thought they, or a number of their friends, could also be Maisie's father.
"Little Alfie is convinced he's the father," Clifford said. "We need to just make sure everything is 100 percent as they think it is."
On Monday, the Sun published photos of Chantelle wearing her school uniform holding baby Maisie, alongside photos of the two other teens who claim to have slept with her. In an accompanying story, Chantelle professed her love for Alfie and said she had never had sex with anyone else.
Phil Hall, a former editor of the News of the World tabloid, told the Independent newspaper that Alfie and Chantelle stood to earn perhaps 500,000 pounds (about $720,000 today) in the coming years.
"There would be a documentary, pictures of the child's first birthday, her first day at school when her father will possibly still be in school," Hall said.
"Nobody wants to set up Alfie as a role model, or to celebrate what's happened," he said. "At the same time, people have a lot of sympathy with him. It's a moral dilemma, but this is a story that is worthy of national debate."