She could see me coming a mile off. The reporter with a cameraman in tow was in her sights.
As I looked out over the tents, protestors and policemen outside Cuadrilla’s drilling site in Balcombe, the floaty dress-wearing, grey-haired woman took my arm.
“I’ve got a GREAT story for you. See that boy over there? He saw the protest on TV and then told his Mum and Dad they HAD to come down. He said they’re poisoning the water. He’s been holding up those heavy signs all day.”
And with a zealot’s gleam in her eyes she ran off to fetch the boy for me.
I shouted after her, “But I need to get permission from his parents first!”
“Oh, I’m his parent,” she called back, dismissing my concerns. She quite clearly wasn’t.
Ethical journalism, legal journalism, requires me to get permission every time I interview a child. Well-meaning she may have been – but it’s the sort of manipulation which could give protestors a bad name.
We did get permission from Alfred’s father for an interview – and you’ll see the initiative-grabbing little man feature in our TV report coming soon. His dad was quite clearly a very nice, diligent parent.
But my first encounter with a lady who shall remain nameless made me pause to wonder at how some adults use children to make a statement. (Former Environment Secretary John Gummer feeding his daughter beef at the height of the BSE crisis, anyone?)
Hoisting children onto our shoulders to make a point is nothing new. Usually this is harmless, even cute and funny.
But sometimes it can be dangerous. This week children’s charity UNICEF voiced concerns over reports children may have been killed or injured in Egypt during protests after President Mohamed Morsi was deposed.
UNICEF’s representative in Egypt denounced images of children who have been “deliberately used and put at risk” as “disturbing”.
In many ways this is incomparable to Balcombe’s kindergarten comrades pictured in British newspapers. There has been little to no violence in the small Sussex village’s demonstration. The atmosphere is family-friendly.
But are we too quick to seize the political photo opportunity, foist it on children in the same way politicians of old kissed babies for the camera, to – bluntly speaking – put anti-fracking words in the mouths of babes?
Perhaps not. In Alfred’s case, it seems he was the one – rather than his parents – who prompted them all to rush to the aid of Balcombe.
Could there be a lesson here? Maybe children know better. Maybe fracking is as “annoying” and “poisonous” as two young protestors told me – one shyly, the other solemnly – when I visited Balcombe.
We won’t know for decades. But perhaps one day our demand for gas at any cost – environmental or otherwise – will have given rise to a new, bitterer twist on Philip Larkin’s immortal opening line of poetry: They frack you up, your mum and dad.