A newspaper which put mobile phone video footage showing disruptive pupils in a maths class on its website was criticised today by the Press Complaints Commission for intruding into pupils’ time at school.
The Hamilton Advertiser should have taken steps to ensure that any pupils shown in the footage could not be identified, or should have got consent to use the material on the website, the PCC said.
The criticism comes in the PCC’s first adjudication on a complaint involving audio-visual footage on a newspaper’s website.
It rejected similar complaints against the Scottish Daily Mirror and the Scottish Sun, which used images taken from the footage, as they had not identified any of the pupils involved.
The complaints were made by Mrs Laura Gaddis, president of the John Ogilvie High School Parent Teacher Association.
They arose from a story which appeared in the Hamilton Advertiser on March 29 under the headline “Nicola films class after her parents snap over report”, and associated mobile phone video footage on the newspaper’s website.
The story said a 16-year-old pupil had filmed her unruly mathematics class at school on her mobile phone so as to explain poor results to her parents, and included stills from the video, in which fellow pupils and the teacher could be identified.
The newspaper published the moving images on its website.
Mrs Gaddis said neither the school, parents or pupils had consented to the class being filmed, no consent was given for publication of the video, and the newspaper had not contacted the school to find out if there was a genuine problem or it was a one-off incident.
The Hamilton Advertiser said there was a clear public interest in the lack of supervision in the class. It had not infiltrated the school, but used footage taken by a pupil, and which showed pupils all of whom were over the age of 16.
It was willing to apologise if the article had distressed any of the pupils concerned, but said it was inappropriate to apologise to the school authorities. The footage had also been removed from its website on the day of publication, and the images would not be used again.
Upholding the complaint, the PCC said the story was clearly of considerable public interest. It was entirely legitimate for the paper to bring conditions in the classroom to public attention, and to use – at least in part -information in the video.
It went on: “At the same time, the newspaper had a responsibility to ensure that the material it published did not infringe the rights of the pupils appearing in the footage, some of whom were clearly identifiable.
“They had not known they were going to feature in the newspaper and on its website, and there had been no consent for publication. While the newspaper had argued that obscuring the faces would have undermined the impact of the story, the Commission considered that any public interest in identifying the pupils was not so great as to override their rights under the Code.
“Steps should have been taken to conceal their identity or to obtain proper consent. Not doing so amounted to an unnecessary intrusion into the pupils’ time at school in breach of Clause 6.”
But it rejected the complaints in relation to the Scottish Daily Mirror and the Scottish Sun.
The Scottish Daily Mirror had used the story and one still image from the mobile phone footage the day after the story appeared in the Hamilton Advertiser, and the Scottish Sun had used more than one image with its coverage of the story that same day.
The Scottish Daily Mirror obscured the face of one pupil, and no others could be identified, while the Scottish Sun said the quality of the images was so poor that no pupils would have been identifiable, but it had nevertheless removed the pictures from its archive to ensure that they would not be re-used.
The PCC said that the issue of identification of pupils was central to any assessment of whether there was any intrusion into their time at school, adding: “As a matter of common sense, if the pupils remained unknown, the impact of publication on them would be negligible.”
The Scottish Daily Mirror deliberately took steps to avoid identifying pupils, which showed that care was taken over the balance between its right to publish the story and the pupils’ rights to freedom from unnecessary intrusion. The resulting article also demonstrated that it was possible to publish the story in a meaningful way while obscuring the pupils’ identities. The newspaper had struck the balance in an appropriate and proportionate way.
The Scottish Sun, it said, had not used any images which would have identified pupils, and its action was sufficient to stay within the terms of the Code.