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Complainant Name:
Mrs Rebecca Louise Elder

Clauses Noted: 1, 6

Publication: Midhurst and Petworth Observer


Mrs Rebecca Louise Elder, acting on behalf of the parents of a pupil at Fernhurst Pre-School, complained to the Press Complaints Commission that an article headlined "Pre-school child porn web shock", published in the Midhurst and Petworth Observer on 18 July 2013, had included a photograph of the pupil in breach of Clause 6 (Children) of the Editors' Code of Practice.

The complaint was upheld.

The front-page article reported that pornographic messages and links to websites showing indecent images of children had been posted in the comments section of the pre-school's website. The piece had been accompanied by an image of the website's homepage, which contained a photograph showing part of the face of a current pupil.

The child's parents considered that the use of the image had endangered the child in breach of Clause 6 (Children). The complainant noted that child protection agencies warn that using photos of children in stories of a sexual nature can make them vulnerable to "grooming"; in addition there is a risk that such photos may be used inappropriately by others. Local people had recognised the child from the image, but her parents did all they could to shield her from the consequences of its publication. The child's face should have been obscured and permission to use the image obtained.

The newspaper said that it was impossible for people to identify the child from the image, unless they had previously been made aware of it; only her nose and mouth were partially visible, and her gender was not obvious. The child was in no more danger as a result of the article than other pupils pictured on the pre-school's website. Although the newspaper was confident that the child was not identifiable, it had decided to blur her visible features when the story was published online.



The terms of Clause 6 (Children) state that "young people should be free to complete their time at school without unnecessary intrusion".

Contrary to the newspaper's position, the Commission considered that the child was in fact identifiable from the image. While it showed only part of her face, her features were visible, and her parents had confirmed that she had been recognised locally. There was no suggestion that the child was relevant to the issue, and the juxtaposition of her image with a headline that referred to a "child porn web shock" had the clear potential to cause her embarrassment and upset. In the view of the Commission, the republication of the image, without pixelation, in this context had the clear potential to intrude into her time at school. This was an error of judgment and raised a breach of Clause 6.

Although the Commission upheld the complaint, it acknowledged that the newspaper had acted in good faith in pursuing a story of local importance and clear public interest. By alerting the police and the county council to the presence of the links on the website, the newspaper had performed a public service that had benefited the pre-school and the wider community.


The complainant, acting on behalf of Fernhurst Pre-School, said the article had contained inaccurate and misleading information in breach of Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Code.

The complaint was not upheld.

The complainant raised a number of concerns regarding the article's accuracy. Most significantly, while she acknowledged that the newspaper had been told on the day before publication by police that they were "investigating", she denied that this amounted to a "police investigation" (in the article's phrase). She considered this implied, wrongly, that the pre-school was being investigated, and maintained that the newspaper should have made further inquiries with police. There had been no police investigation into how the messages had been posted, and there was no question of "hacking". Police had merely recommended that the pre-school contact the Internet Watch Foundation. In addition, the school was not "privately run"; it was run by a charitable trust.

The newspaper believed its article, which had reported that the comments had been removed within hours of being noticed, was fair and accurate. It emphasised that after noticing the comments - which had been published on the pre-school's website for ten days - its reporters had contacted the police and the pre-school to alert them. The police had told the newspaper that the matter was being investigated; at that point, they had not established how the comments had been placed on the website. The newspaper said it did not understand what the police could be investigating, if not who had posted the comments and how. It had made repeated attempts to contact the pre-school before publication for comment, without success. The pre-school was not run by the council; it was, therefore, privately run. The newspaper did not accept any breach of the Code, but offered to publish a follow-up story.

The complainant said that the police had closed their file on the issue by the time the newspaper had gone to print; in her view, this was a "non-story" that had damaged the pre-school and should never have been published. She rejected the newspaper's offer to interview her for a follow-up.


In the view of the Commission, having been told - on the day before publication - that the police were investigating the matter, it was not significantly misleading for the newspaper to have referred to a "police investigation". It did not follow from this that the pre-school was a focus of inquiries.

It was also not significantly misleading for the article to have suggested that such an investigation would relate to how the comments had been posted, at a time when it appeared that this basic information had not been established. While the complainant denied that the school was "privately run", the Commission considered that was not misleading in the context of a brief reference which served to make clear, accurately, that it was not directly governed by local education authorities. There was no breach of Clause 1.

Date Published:

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