Howells backs PCC over child identification ruling

Howells: said parents could speak to press

Media minister Kim Howells has moved to defend the Press Complaints Commission at a time when it is under parliamentary scrutiny.

He refused this week to back an MP who called for the press to adopt tougher voluntary controls over the naming of children – or face new laws.

Wrexham Labour MP Ian Lucas had complained about press reports concerning two children, both under 16 and in relationships with older men, who had disappeared, one in this country and one abroad.

He said that in one case the child’s school was pinpointed and in the other, both the school and the girl’s home were identified. He claimed both children appeared to have been “victims of crime”.

“If either girl had committed a criminal offence rather than been the victim of such an offence, it would have been illegal to print that information,” said Lucas.

But Howells said that in one case the parents had chosen to speak out and, at the time, there had been no suggestion the girl was the victim of any offence.

“The details were widely published and it is possible that they may have helped the police to find the girl and reunite her with her family,” said Howells.

Lucas told the minister that in his view, a series of articles about one of the children was in breach of the PCC’s code. He was therefore surprised when the PCC told him it could not investigate anything “without the co-operation of the child’s parents”.

Editors had told him that because the children’s names were in the public domain, “their obligation was simply to inform their readers of the facts”.

Howells told Lucas the PCC’s rules on what newspapers could print about children were even tougher when it came to sexual offences. If the parents felt there had been a breach of the code, they should complain to the PCC.

But he added: “Parents have the right to speak to the press about their child as they see fit. We have no right to complain about their comments and must keep our disapproval to ourselves.”

Howells said that although the press was not perfect, the number of complaints, given the vast number of publications, was “very small”.

“We have a vibrant and irreverent press that is undoubtedly free and this country would be a far poorer place without it.”

The minister’s defence of self-regulation comes when the all-party media committee’s inquiry into media intrusion has sparked concern that the Government may face calls to introduce new privacy laws or bring the PCC under the control of new media regulator Ofcom.

The committee had been due to hear evidence this week from the editors of the Manchester Evening News, the Daily Record, Now magazine, and the BBC and ITN, but the hearing was postponed because of the Gulf war debate.

By David Rose

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