Judge supports TV undercover schools exposé

By Caitlin Pike and Colin Crummy

A judge has championed investigative journalism by rejecting an
injunction against Channel 4’s secret filming of classrooms by ruling
the programme was in the public interest.

The Dispatches documentary included footage obtained by undercover
reporter Alex Dolan – a qualified teacher – when she filmed secretly in
four UK schools, two in Leeds and two in Islington. The film showed
children rioting in class and caught teachers explaining how they
cheated Ofsted by sending the worst children away from the school on
inspection days.

Representatives of two of the children at one of
the Leeds schools applied for the injunction, requesting that the
children be removed from the film because it infringed their right of
privacy.

Judge Munby, sitting in a court in Newcastle, stated
that while children at school had a reasonable expectation of privacy
and that in this case it had been infringed by the secret filming, he
had to balance other “competing rights”.

He found that the film
was a serious piece of documentary journalism and the picture it showed
of the situation in some state schools was disturbing.

He said
the viewing public, under Article 10 of the Human Rights Act, had a
right to receive the information, but particularly the parents of the
children at the schools had a right to know what was taking place, as
did council tax payers, Ofsted and the secretary of state for
education. He also said other children willing to learn were being
prevented from doing so.

The judge said that, in line with
Ofcom’s broadcasting code, Channel 4 could not have obtained the
footage without going about it secretly. If it had asked permission it
would have been refused, or the true picture would not have been shown.

Susan
Aslan, a partner at Olswang, who represented Channel 4 in the case,
said: “It is very difficult when you’re surreptitiously filming
children, but where there’s a failure in public policy, a government
department is being misled, there’s a complete breakdown in school
discipline or a failure of the education system, you are then permitted
to do what is normally prohibited.

“The key for the broadcaster
is preparation – you have to go in being pretty sure you’re getting
something important; then you can do this sort of story and the courts
will support you.”

A Channel 4 spokeswoman said: “This ruling is a victory for freedom of expression in an important area of public interest.”

Not always the case…

PCC RULING, 2001

In July 2001, the Press Complaints Commission handed out one of its
sternest adjudications after a journalist went undercover in a London
primary school on an assignment for the Evening Standard.

The PCC received complaints from the head teacher and chairwoman of
the governors at Salisbury Primary School in north London about a
feature by Alex Renton.

The complainants said parents and staff
were angry at the deceit and the children couldn’t understand why a
trusted adult had lied to them.

The PCC rejected the Standard’s
claims that the story was in the public interest. It said: “There was
nothing to suggest to the journalist or the newspaper in advance of the
visit that anything was going on at the school that needed to be
investigated in the public interest.”

The PCC added: “Given that
virtually every school will or may have some ‘shortcomings’ at any
given point, to have accepted the public interest justification would
have been to entitle any journalist at any point to gain access to any
school using subterfuge.”

The Commission said the piece contained
sufficient information for parents and children to work out the
identity of a child who was the suspected victim of a sexual assault.

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