Editors must use integrity when reporting on minors

The naming of children and young people in print has never occupied more time for journalists and editors than it does now.

This week, for instance, the Grimbsy Evening Telegraph, the Lincolnshire Echo and PA have successfully battled to name 16-year-old Alan Pennell, convicted of murdering schoolmate Luke Walmsley. They wrote to the judge urging that the seriousness of the crime, and the fact that everyone connected with the school already knew the killer’s identity, meant his name should be allowed to be printed.

Almost every week, in less serious cases, journalists face similar battles. Take the Lancashire Evening Post, whose trainee reporter Emilie Bradshaw had to stand up in court to argue that magistrates should not prevent journalists from identifying a 16-year-old involved in an Anti-Social Behaviour Order (ASBO) case. So wide-ranging were the court’s restrictions that the LEP could not even report the nature of the crime for which the youth had been convicted.

The magistrates ignored the challenge. But in the end – thanks to Bradshaw and the paper’s front-page criticism of the ban – they were forced to do a U-turn and reopen the case with some of the reporting restrictions lifted.

It is often the regional press that is at the forefront of this type of story, and its journalists have to be constantly vigilant over courts’ misguided application of reporting restrictions.

This fact has finally been recognised by the Home Office’s new five-year plan on ASBOs. Its report acknowledges the importance of reassuring members of the public that perpetrators of anti-social crimes are being brought to justice – and that the media has to be at the forefront of this.

It will take action, it says, to ensure that it will be easier for local media to report on breaches of ASBOs.

Let’s hope the courts take note.

Not that the naming of children is ever straightforward.

The Northern Echo’s debate over whether or not to name the 14-year-old girl who had been sent home from hospital with her miscarried foetus in a bottle is one case in point.

The fact that editor Peter Barron weighed so carefully the implications before deciding not to name the girl – a decision he stands by even after The Sun put her on page 1 – demonstrates clearly how seriously editors take their responsibility when it comes to reporting on children.

And, right or wrong, at least he was free to make up his own mind, rather than being constrained by the decision of a group of magistrates less informed than he was about the issue.

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