News Analysis: Is F4J a casualty of direct action?

As Fathers4Justice continues to hit the headlines, founder Matt O'Connor talks to Sarah Robertson about the group's mission and political agenda.

Media coverage of Fathers4Justice (F4J) direct action 'superheroes' campaign surpassed even the rights group's own expectations. Formed two years ago, if you haven't heard of the group by now you must have been living in a cave.

The escapades of the protester dressed as Batman at Buckingham Palace and the consequent scramble for the security forces to defend the safety of the Royal Family was splashed across every paper and TV screen in the UK last week. The stunt generated even more coverage than when F4J campaigners threw powder-filled condoms at Tony Blair in the House of Commons in May, according to F4J founder Matt O'Connor.

But just because F4J is becoming a household name, does the public understand the issues driving the superheroes and is Whitehall listening to its criticism of the family court system?

Public face of fathers

The charity that helps parents with contact battles, Families Need Fathers, says F4J's high profile campaign has warmed up the political audience.

Spokesman Jim Parton says: 'Until F4J came along, it was easy for politicians to ignore us, which they did. Unquestionably the dialogue we have had with politicians has improved since F4J. Our aims are now on the agenda.'

Fathers Direct, a charity that supplies information on fatherhood, acknowledges that F4J has triumphed with an effective campaign. 'F4J is stepping into a political vacuum - male politicians are not debating fatherhood, so it gives its message enormous imperative in PR terms,' says spokesman Jack O'Sullivan. But it distances itself from F4J's policies, which O'Sullivan says are over-focused on separated fathers.

The Conservative Party's adoption of F4J's call for better rights for fathers earlier this summer was a significant step, says O'Connor, who was originally sceptical of the Tories' reasons for supporting the cause, following previous personal meetings with party leader Michael Howard that failed to get him on side.

However, commentators are starting to see F4J's own publicity turn negative.

The media backlash has seen high-profile F4J campaigners dragged through the mud. Campaigners' previous convictions for harassment have leaked into the tabloids, and former partners of some of the campaigners have accused them of adultery and heavy drinking.

Daily Mirror chief reporter Gary Jones says: 'Their backgrounds have tainted their campaign. There is a debate to be had about the way the courts behave and fathers have been badly treated. However, these men are not superheroes, quite the opposite. In many cases, it is them who have misbehaved.'

The Guardian social affairs commentator Polly Toynbee describes F4J's campaign as 'aggressive' and 'macho' and blasts its policies: 'Professional PR people would not have advised this campaign. The way they come across is not as sensitive dads. The interviews they give and the way they talk about the issues seem like revenge on their former partners.'

'They could have run a more effective campaign if they had limited it to criticism of the speed of the courts, and that the courts do not enforce orders for women to let dads see their kids.'

But O'Connor dismisses his critics: 'You had the suffragettes who people originally laughed at, and now you have the suffragents. A degree of notoriety is no bad thing.'

When O'Connor set up F4J, he devised a three-year strategy. The first year was intended to build the brand, raise awareness and lobby the Department for Constitutional Affairs (DCA). The second (current) year centres on direct action and will culminate with its own awards evening to find the best activist of the year. The third year is where O'Connor wants to see increased political debate on its issues. But all O'Connor will say on this is that he will maintain briefing the media.

F4J's main aim is to achieve automatic presumptions of 50-50 custody in all child access cases, giving both parents equal rights in the eyes of the law. But this goes against the recent Children's Bill, which heralded a child's rights as paramount, according to Toynbee, who says parents have responsibilities, not rights.

F4J outlines its policies in a manifesto called 'Blueprint'. It also wants a minister for family life and a government department for family affairs, and the abolition of the Children and Family Court Advisory Service (Cafcass). And it wants to replace the Child Support Agency with a family benefits service allocating equal child maintenance support to both parents, and a Parentshare scheme, in the form of a contract setting out how much time each parent sees their child for. The DCA says that 27 per cent of parents living apart from their children never see their children, but eight per cent of those living apart see them every day.

But O'Connor refuses to return to a debate with the DCA personally, unless it comes up with plans for radical reform, and is counting on law to change through public pressure and media attention.

O'Connor warns of another direct action stunt imminently at next week's Labour Party Conference.

And while it lacks the funds to form a political party, it has paid for independent candidate Paul Watson to change his name by deed poll to 'Paul Watson Fathers4Justice' at next week's Hartlepool by-election, ensuring further coverage of its brand name.

Where to from here?

But is there a future for the masked crusaders and their campaign? How can they top their stunts. And will Batman end up framed by the tabloids as a joker?

Whether branded heroes or villains by the media - it is currently calling them both - leading family lawyers have sympathised with F4J's campaign, including the Law Society's Family Law Panel chief assessor Marilyn Stowe and Justice James Mumby. It is support at this level that could prompt changes.

F4J's direct action tactics have achieved mass awareness of its cause and broad public sympathy. A poll for Channel 4 chat show Richard and Judy last week found 68 per cent branding them 'heroes' and 32 per cent 'villains'.

But whether it succeeds in achieving understanding and legislative change remains to be seen.

F4J PUBLICITY STUNTS

- October 2003: Protester dressed as Spider-Man closes roads Tower Bridge after spending six days up a crane

- May 2004: Powder-filled condoms are thrown at Tony Blair in the House of Commons

- September 2004: Protester dressed as Spider-Man climbs aboard London Eye, closing the attraction for several hours

- September 2004: Protester dressed as Batman climbs onto the balcony of Buckingham Palace for five hours.

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