Has the cheque book become too powerful?

 

Six hours and twenty minutes is a long time in journalism. Long enough for Manchester Evening News editor Paul Horrocks to get 85,000 copies of a world exclusive picture story on to the streets. Long enough for one injunction to be lifted and another one to be slapped down. Long enough for some extremely tricky questions to be asked about press freedom, the interests of a small child and the practice of commercial buy-ups.

By 1pm last Friday, Horrocks was a happy man. The lifting of the injunction on pictures of the surviving Siamese twin, Gracie, meant that he could publish his photographer Paul Burrows’ opportunistically snatched pictures of her with her family in the hospital car park. Bingo. World exclusive, public interest story. Without forking out a penny.

By 7.20pm his smiles of joy had turned to frowns of frustration. Mr Justice Bennett had decided, in the MEN’s absence, that a new injunction was necessary, preventing further use of its pictures. That decision was reinforced the following day.

The judge had Gracie’s future in mind when he decided that the deals brokered for the family by Max Clifford with the News of the World, The Mail on Sunday, Now magazine and Granada would be jeopardised by the appearance of other, non-authorised pictures.

In making the ruling, he said that he was not deciding between the commercial interests of two media organisations. But it’s very hard to see how, in this case, Gracie’s interests can be separated from the interests of those who have paid for her story.

Since her picture would be appearing in those newspapers involved in the deal, the issue was no longer about protecting Gracie’s identity. Instead, the judge appeared to be of the opinion that the MEN breached the Code of Practice by simply taking a picture of a child without its parents’ consent.

This still has to be tested by the PCC, which won’t see it as that clear-cut. It will have to take into account whether the child’s welfare was damaged, and the fact that her parents had already sold other pictures of her.

In the end, it all boils down to Gracie’s financial interests and the money that had been promised.

And that therefore raises the question that Horrocks is asking: when is a deal not a deal? If the buy-up had already been agreed, surely the payments should be made to Gracie’s family regardless of the appearance of other images elsewhere. In which case the publication of the MEN pictures would have no bearing on Gracie’s future finances.

It’s hard to disagree with his fears that the ruling means the cheque book has become more powerful than the notebook – or, in this case, the camera.

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