Clauses Noted: 1
Publication: Daily Mirror
Roger Gale MP complained that a report headlined "Gun Shame of Tory MP's son" in The Mirror on 3 March 1997 contained an inaccurate account of an incident involving his 15 year old son in breach of Clause 1 Accuracy) of the Code of Practice.
The article reported that the complainant's son had been suspended from his school following an incident on the school bus where he had fired a "gun" at another child's bag. It concluded by stating that the complainant was opposed to the proposed Firearms Bill.
The complainant acknowledged that his son had been suspended from school but said that the incident had been described in such a way as to give a "false impression" which had upset his son. In addition, the boy was not attending a "private school". He asked the Commission to review the Code of Practice in the light of this case, and to produce guidelines on the portrayal in newspapers of the children of people in public life.
The newspaper responded that the account of the boy's suspension after firing a gun of some sort on the school bus did not appear to be in contention. It said that the Headmaster of the school had told its reporter that the boy had fired a plastic gun and that the incident was considered serious enough to warrant his suspension. It conceded that the school was not "private".
The Headmaster of the school confirmed to the Commission that he had called the gun a "ball bearing gun" in his conversation with the newspaper, and that he had accepted that "firing a gun on the bus with other people present, albeit a toy gun, could have resulted in an accident and this was why the school had taken the action it had."
The Commission noted that there was no dispute about the central facts in the case: the complainant's son had been suspended from school; he had fired what was subsequently described by the Headmaster as a "ball bearing gun" on the bus; it had been fired at a bag; and the school had considered the incident was one which "could have resulted in an accident". The Commission also noted that the newspaper conceded the school was not a "private" one, although this was not central to the complaint.
The Commission considered in particular the use of the word "gun" by the newspaper in its headline. While it clearly understood the complainant's concerns about the public dramatisation of the event, it was clear that the newspaper had confirmation that the item which was fired was known colloquially as a ball bearing "gun" and that the school believed its use was potentially dangerous. The epithet "gun" for this item was widely used by newspapers.
The headline, and in particular the linking of the incident with the complainant's stance on firearms legislation, was a robust expression of the newspaper's editorial view - and not one on which the Commission could make a finding under the Code. The Commission took note of the fact that the industry's Code of Practice allows for newspapers to be partisan in their coverage.
The Commission also considered the complainant's more general comments, which were not raised under the Code, about the portrayal by newspapers of the children of those in the public eye.
The Commission believes that the treatment of children is one of the central benchmarks by which self regulation is judged. As a result of tough provisions in Clause 12 (Interviewing and photographing children) of the Code, which was designed to protect the vulnerable position of children at school, standards in this area have improved. There have in the past three years been very few complaints raising breaches of that part of the Code in which the children of ordinary families are involved.
However, one area of concern to the Commission is where the children of public figures feature in newspaper or magazine stories which would not be published or justified if they were children from ordinary families.
The Commission would like to reiterate that the mere fact of a family or other relationship to someone in the public eye does not of itself justify the publication of a story about them. Sometimes a family connection is central to a story which can be justified in the public interest; in other cases it merely provides illustration of a political or other point.
Where possible, stories about public figures which raise issues about, or involve, their children should be published without detail - including name - which might lead to the identification of the child. Where a story about the parents of the child is justified in the public interest, the vulnerable position of a child must be taken into consideration - and the child only identified in exceptional circumstances.
The Commission agrees with the complainant's suggestion in this case - that both the Code and its own guidance should be scrutinised to ensure that this position is clear. It will ask the Code Committee to do so, and will in due course be producing its own specific editorial guidance on this matter.
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