Complaints against two Scottish weekly newspapers who identified and published photos of a 13-year-old girl without parental consent have been upheld by the Press Complaints Commission, despite the publisher arguing there was a strong public interest defence.
The stories, published in the Wishaw Press and Hamilton Advertiser in August 2011, were about North Lanarkshire Council paying £27,000 in taxi fares over three years to take the teenager – the granddaughter of Motherwell and Wishaw MSP John Pentland – to a dance school
The girl’s father complained to the PCC that the stories caused distress to the family, breached clause six (children) of the Editors’ Code of Conduct – which has a public interest defence – and resulted in his daughter suffering “unpleasant comments at school and on social networking sites”.
The child was not named in the original council report on the £9,000 a-year-payments but the papers took the decision to publish both her name and a photo of her celebrating Pentland’s election victory with her family three months earlier.
The photograph was originally taken with the consent of her parents and papers believed it “therefore existed within the public domain”.
In its defence the publisher said the stories were in the public interest, particularly in the context of public service cuts and the fact alternative public transport was available.
It also claimed that because the father had spoken to the paper it did not believe using the image would be a problem.
The complainant countered that he had ‘not been happy’to speak to the newspaper but ‘felt he had had no choice”, claiming the newspaper ‘had contacted him and his wife on several occasions and had indicated that the story would be published with or without his co-operation”.
The publisher Trinity Mirror offered a private letter of apology to the family and to remove online versions of the photograph – as well as confirming it would not publish the child’s name or photograph in the future – but the father said he wanted a public apology.
In its adjudication the PCC acknowledged there was a “legitimate public interest” in reporting how taxpayers’ money was being spent and believed the papers had ‘sought to take into account the requirements of the code when reaching its decision”.
But it said the issue came down to whether they had ‘struck an appropriate balance’between the public’s right to know the facts and the girl’s right to complete her time at school without unnecessary intrusion.
It concluded that the public interest ‘could have been served without the identity of the child being highlighted”, noting that other newspapers had run the story without identifying her, and the complaints were upheld.
PCC director Stephen Abell said: “The Editors’ Code contains strict provisions designed to protect children, and requires an exceptional public interest to override this.
‘Although the commission recognised the public interest in the story and welcomed the offers the newspapers had made to the family to remedy the situation, the complaints were upheld on the basis that the newspapers had not met the high requirements required by the Code”.
Clause six of the Editors’ Code of Practice:
i) Young people should be free to complete their time at school without unnecessary intrusion.
ii) A child under 16 must not be interviewed or photographed on issues involving their own or another child’s welfare unless a custodial parent or similarly responsible adult consents.
iii) Pupils must not be approached or photographed at school without the permission of the school authorities.
iv) Minors must not be paid for material involving children’s welfare, nor parents or guardians for material about their children or wards, unless it is clearly in the child’s interest.
v) Editors must not use the fame, notoriety or position of a parent or guardian as sole justification for publishing details of a child’s private life.