Clauses Noted: 1, 6
Publication: The Mail on Sunday
The Prime Minister and Mrs Blair complained that articles and a leader in The Mail on Sunday on 24 January 1999 were misleading in breach of Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Code of Practice, and intruded into their daughter's privacy in breach of Clause 6 (Children).
The article, including one on the front page headlined 'Parents' Fury over Blairs in School Place Row', and an accompanying leader comment, concerned the decision by the Sacred Heart High School in Hammersmith to admit Kathryn Blair - the Prime Minister's daughter - while rejecting other local children. The article said that some parents believed the Prime Minister had been given special treatment by the school. Thirteen girls had been turned down by the school this year,compared to only two last year. The article said that the parents concerned - two of whom were named in the article - were given no reasons for this decision, despite the fact that eleven of them had been 'promised' places.
A leader said that while Kathryn Blair was 'clearly a bright child', her acceptance into Sacred Heart 'tells us more about choice... For while she takes her place in the autumn term, 11 other children, educated in Sacred Heart's adjoining primary school face exclusion'. This leads to the suspicion, it said, that the school was operating an 'under-the-counter' selection policy. The Prime Minister and Mrs Blair were not poor, the leader commented, and could have paid for private education for their daughter instead.
The complainants said that their daughter Kathryn was being raised as a Roman Catholic - and they had always wanted her to attend a Catholic comprehensive school, preferably one which was single sex. The only school in Westminster was mixed and in Maida Vale, some way from Downing Street. Sacred Heart was their first choice: they applied for a place for their daughter and were accepted entirely in line with standard procedures.
They said that the newspaper had contacted Hammersmith and Fulham Borough Council to put to them the allegations that Kathryn Blair had benefited from an 'under-the-counter' selection policy. The Council had made clear that, since the Greenwich judgement of 1989, it has been illegal for schools to refuse admission to children who do not live in the borough. Places at the school were allocated in accordance with published admissions criteria, with preference given to Catholic children who attend Catholic primary schools.
Both the news coverage and the editorial, they said, were designed to invite readers to believe that Kathryn had been given special treatment: only she stood accused of taking a place at the expense of other children, but without any evidence of special treatment to back up these allegations. This was a breach of Clause 6 of the Code - with no exceptional public interest to justify it.
In making the complaint, they underlined that the Prime Minister accepted that the Government's education policies should be properly scrutinised, but believed there were ample opportunities to do so without infringing the privacy of his children. Furthermore, the thrust and premise of the story were false - in breach of Clause 1 of the Code - making the intrusion worse. In response, the newspaper said that the thrust of the story was not special treatment, but a group of parents' justifiable complaint that their daughters had been denied promised places at a school which did accept Mr Blair's daughter, even though she appeared no better qualified. A reporter from the newspaper had tried to interview the Headmistress to ascertain the facts, but she refused to do so.
After the results of the school's selection process had been made known to the parents, those who were disappointed formed the view that the school was taking advantage of its increasing popularity to introduce a policy of back-door selection. This was made worse by the Headmistress's insistence that if parents listed a second choice of school for their daughters on an application form, they would be excluded from consideration. This had placed disappointed parents in an impossible situation and fuelled their anger. In her anger, one of the parents had told the newspaper that 'Tony Blair's daughter got in .. she had taken my daughter's place.' This was echoed in the comments of some other parents. The newspaper was reporting that anger and the Prime Minister's alleged hypocrisy at taking advantage of a place at a comprehensive school. His conduct in making choices which the policy of his Government is preventing others from making was one of genuine public interest. Such reporting was a crucial role for the press in a democratic society: a successful complaint would place the Prime Minister beyond criticism for his stance on education if scrutiny involved his children.
On the specific point about the privacy of Kathryn Blair, the newspaper said that it had not discussed in any way her private life nor intruded into her school life by disclosing information about her. A deliberate decision was made not to carry a picture of her. It confirmed that it would never publish material about the private lives of the Prime Minister's children simply because he was Prime Minister.
In further comments, the complainants said that the newspaper could have satisfied itself that there was no 'under-the-counter' selection policy simply by looking at the admissions criteria. The admissions policy was made available in full to the newspaper before publication. Kathryn satisfied them all - and it would have been illegal for the school to discriminate against her on grounds of residence. A newspaper should not be able to justify a story about children by repeating a false allegation - when there was no evidence to support it. For a child to start a new school amid allegations that she got in as a result of special treatment was a grotesque attack on her right to lead an ordinary life.
The headmistress of the school concerned supported the complaint in a lengthy submission which, amongst other things, analysed the admission criteria by reference to both those refused a place and to the position of Kathryn Blair. She strongly refuted any suggestion that Kathryn Blair had been specially favoured, and challenged a number of the other facts. The newspaper maintained that the reporting was accurate at the time of publication and pointed out that since the articles one rejected child had won a place at the school on appeal. It disputed a number of statements made by the headmistress and asked for a large amount of supporting documentation to be disclosed. In the event this did not prove necessary as the Commission took the view that, in the light of the newspaper's arguments, the headmistress's submission and the reply did not add anything to the issues which it had to decide.
Clause 1 of the Code provides that newspapers must take care not to publish inaccurate or misleading material. Clause 6 provides that young people should be free to complete their time at school without unnecessary intrusion, and that where material about the private life of a child is published, there must be justification other than the fame or position of his or her parents.
This is the first occasion on which the Commission has considered a complaint about the child of a public figure under the new provisions of Clause 6 of the Code - and it is aware that this complaint raises new issues which it is right for the Commission to address. In the context of this case, the Commission wished to note the following preliminary points.
It is manifestly the role, and responsibility, of the press to scrutinise Government policies and the conduct of those responsible for them. The press should be entitled to relate such scrutiny to the children of politicians where their conduct in matters relating to their children has an impact on policy or gives rise to reasonable charges of hypocrisy. In appropriate cases this might provide the exceptional public interest justification required by the Code.
Although this is the first case of its kind, two recent adjudications offered guidance in dealing with this complaint. In the first, the Commission ruled that unfounded allegations - even though they were presented as such - could create a misleading impression that gave rise to a breach of Clause 1 (Report 43, p.23). In the second, the Commission ruled that, while an article itself may have been one of public interest, it was wrong to make the complainant the focus of a story which could have been written without mentioning her (Report 44, p.5).
Finally, the Commission had to bear in mind that at the centre of the article and complaint was an eleven year old child. The Code is rightly designed to give the maximum possible protection to children who in many circumstances may be vulnerable. In this instance Kathryn Blair will now be starting a new school amid a welter of allegations that she might have received preferential treatment in securing a place.
The first question for the Commission was whether the newspaper articles and leader, taken as a whole, gave a misleading impression that Kathryn Blair had been made the subject of special treatment and obtained a place in preference to others who were, at least, equally qualified. The newspaper said that it had not made or implied the suggestion that Kathryn Blair was not entitled on her own merits to a place at the school. It had properly reported the complaints of parents whose children had not been awarded a place.
The Commission concluded that a fair reading of the articles and leader comment led to the conclusion that a breach of the Code had taken place. The articles were concerned with issues relating to the school's admissions policy. There was no evidence to support the allegation that Kathryn Blair was unfairly admitted or had received special treatment, and the newspaper did not provide any. Yet, by the repetition of unsubstantiated allegations about her, the story was presented in a way which implied she had. Linking commentary added to this impression. One parent was said by the newspaper to have 'raised many new questions about how the Blairs secured a place for their own girl when others were refused.' An opposition spokesman was quoted commenting on the premise that it had been established that the Prime Minister's family had enjoyed 'special favouritism.' Specifically referring to Kathryn Blair, the leader said that the actions of the school had led to the suspicion that the school 'was operating an under-the-counter policy of selection.' Only part of a statement by the Hammersmith Council press office was published by the newspaper.
The Commission concluded that the newspaper had reproduced allegations potentially damaging to a child in a misleading way without evidence of special treatment in her case.
The second question which the Commission had to decide was whether there was any justification for making Kathryn Blair the focus of the article and the leader about the admission policy of the school solely because of her relationship to her parents. The newspaper said that the references had arisen during the course of interviews with the parents of unsuccessful children and it should be free to report them.
The Commission believes that an article about the selection procedure at the school could have been written without reference to Kathryn Blair or making her the centre of the story. By herself, she could have been no more responsible for denying a place to the large number of unsuccessful candidates than any other of the girls actually admitted who equally could have been individually highlighted by the articles. To focus on Kathryn Blair in circumstances where there was a breach of Clause 1 of the Code was clearly not within the terms of Clause 6 of the Code and appeared to arise solely because of the position of her father.
Notwithstanding its conclusion on the above question, the Commission went on to consider whether there was any exceptional public interest which justified the reference to Kathryn Blair in the articles and leader. The Commission believes that it would be permissible under the editors' Code to name the children of public figures in newspaper articles - in a manner proportionate to the issues and facts involved - in circumstances where: there is reasonable substance to a charge or allegation that provides the exceptional public interest required by the Code; and it is necessary to report the story and to identify the child because that child, and that child alone, had to be the centre of the story.
Applying these criteria, the Commission could find no justification for naming Kathryn Blair alone in connection with complaints about the admission criteria of the school. There was no evidence of special treatment in her favour. An opposition spokesman who alleged 'hypocrisy' on Mr Blair's part did so on an inaccurate factual basis that the allegations were true. The newspaper's leader did no more than suggest that Mr Blair would be embarrassed if the unproved allegations of an 'under-the-counter policy of selection' proved to be correct.
Finally, the newspaper noted in its submission that Mr Blair had publicly made reference to his children. The complainants' response to this emphasised the great lengths that the Prime Minister and Mrs Blair go to in order to avoid publicity for their children. The Commission agrees with the contention made to it that if every story about the Prime Minister's children, which relates to their education, is to be justified on the basis that he has made statements about education, then Clause 6 provides no protection for his children or others in a similar position. The Commission intends the industry's Code - drawn up by editors themselves - to be effective and to provide real protection for all children.
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