by Angela Phillips
Hannah Weller, wife of musician Paul Weller, is campaigning to make it illegal for the media to publish pictures that identify any child without their parents’ consent. Of course this has had resounding public support because what right thinking person would oppose something labelled ‘child-protection’?
But do we really want to ban images of all children from our media in order to provide protection to the offspring of the rich and famous? Because that is what it would mean. It is already very difficult to publish images of children. Responsible editors and photographers have to cope with draconian rules on child privacy written into the IPSO Editors Code. That means if they happen to take pictures of children in a park, at a festival, or out on the street, they are expected to get parental permission. But children over the age of 12 are often out without their parents so it is pretty impossible to get permission. The result is that they don’t use these pictures and don’t solicit opinions from people who might turn out to be under 18 because they risk breaching the code. The code as its stands is already effectively shutting children out of the public sphere. It is too risky to listen to them so we don’t.
At the moment, though it is considered un-ethical to use such images, it is not actually illegal to use them. So, although you have to comb the pages of most publications (outside social media) to find any pictures of children at all, if a publication photographs and quotes someone who turns out to be 15, they would not normally face legal action. In fact it is most unlikely that they would face any action at all, because most parents would not object to their fifteen-year old child being asked for their opinion on a news story of the day or snapped while queuing for a concert or buying popcorn at a fair. Indeed many would be proud and pop it onto their Facebook pages to show their friends.
If there is a change in the law, publications will become even more risk-averse. No media organisation takes legal risks unless they see the possibility of commensurate rewards. If there is a big scandalous story, risks are often taken, but ordinary everyday stories, in which children might casually feature, are not worth the possibility of legal action so they will simply disappear. In order to provide legal protection to the rich and famous we will end up with an even more impoverished public sphere in which images of children (apart from those that have been posed and provided as ‘stock shots’) have been banished and, in our increasingly visual world, their thoughts and opinions will disappear too.
Weller’s interest in child protection stems from her own battle with the Daily Mail, who published photographs of her and her husband out on a shopping trip with their children, despite their request to the photographer to desist and pleas to the Mail to have the pictures taken down from their site. If parents are unhappy to have their children’s images in the press then they should certainly have those wishes respected. The Daily Mail should have followed the Editors’ code which states quite clearly that: ‘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.’ Any truly independent press regulator should be able to make this happen with a single phone call. A new law should not be required.
Speaking on the Today programme this week, Weller said that it didn’t occur to her to approach the PCC (IPSO’s predecessor) for help in getting the images removed. She said she didn’t trust them to act on her behalf. Instead she went directly to court. Now she wants to save everyone else’s children from press intrusion by making the very action of publishing a child’s photo illegal. It would surely have been far more useful for the Wellers to use their considerable public profile by joining the campaign to ensure that we have all have an effective, independent, press complaints organisation that is willing to take on individual cases of press intrusion. Changing the law as she suggests is like pouring weedkiller into a garden: it certainly controls the weeds but it risks killing the flowers too.