Clauses Noted: 6
Following complaints from members of the public, the Press Complaints Commission opened of its own volition an investigation into whether an article headlined "I'd be happy if my girl became a mum at 12 too", published by Closer magazine on 11 July 2012, breached Clause 6 (Children) of the Editors' Code of Practice.
The complaint was not upheld.
The article reported on an interview the magazine had conducted with a woman who had fallen pregnant at the age of 12. In the interview, the woman had discussed her experiences as a young mother: she explained that she had initially experienced significant difficulties but was now "coping well" and returning to education. Despite her initial struggles, she considered that having had children young was the "smartest thing [she] ever did" and commented that "having sex at 12 is fine if you feel ready and aren't pressured". She had also discussed the hypothetical idea of her 7 year-old daughter's becoming pregnant at a similar age. She said she wouldn't "encourage" it, but "if she did have a baby I'd be happy - it'd be fun being a gran at 27". The woman also said that if her daughter had a baby at 12 she would "cope" and that having children young "makes you a better mum". The piece was illustrated with a photograph of the woman and her two young children, who were also named.
The magazine said that the article had focused on the woman and her views on pregnancy, rather than her children. Her teenage pregnancies had been widely covered in the press in the past, often in a negative light. It argued that the publication of an article reporting that she was seeking to re-enter education and living in a stable home was not contrary to her children's interests. While her views on teenage pregnancy might be unorthodox, her experience as a teenage parent provided a highly relevant contribution to the public debate surrounding the issue. The magazine had balanced her opinions against those of a child psychologist, who had commented that a 12 year-old "is not emotionally ready to bring up a child".
The magazine stated that it had paid the woman £500 for the interview. It pointed out that the Editors' Codebook acknowledged that payments to parents for interviews involving their children were not uncommon, and that "most raise no problem under the Code". It argued that the sum paid in this instance was not "life-changing" and would not serve as a temptation to the woman interviewed to discuss matters or to fabricate information which would be damaging to her children.
The Commission shared the strong concerns of those members of the public who had contacted it about this story, particularly because the woman interviewed appeared to condone the possibility of her daughter's engaging in sexual activity before the legal age of consent. Nonetheless, it was highly conscious of the limitations on its ability to make findings about the effect of publication on the woman's children without any direct information from the family.
The terms of Clause 6 (iv) of the Code, however, place specific obligations on editors to make a judgment about what is in the interests of children before making payments for material about them - regardless of the wishes of their parents or guardians. For this reason, the Commission focused its consideration on the specific issue of payment.
There was no dispute that a payment had been made for the interview, which included references to the woman's young children. The Commission has previously issued guidance setting out the purpose of the Code requirements in this area: "to discourage parents selling a story about their child which would not otherwise be considered to be in their child's interests to publicise" and "to discourage parents from fabricating or exaggerating information for the purposes of securing publication of a story". The guidance also suggests that the Commission might require a publication to show that particular care has been taken over the accuracy of such stories.
Reviewing the present case in light of the guidance, it was plain that it did not involve a parent "selling a story about [her] child": the woman had not, in fact, revealed details of her children's private lives. Rather, she had expressed her views - with which many might disagree - about young mothers, referring to a purely hypothetical situation involving her child as an example.
The Commission noted that the magazine had not endorsed the woman's views: it had - rightly in the Commission's view - described them as "worrying" and contrasted them with comments by a child psychologist. While the Commission retained concerns about the story, on balance it concluded that the payment to the woman for an interview that focussed primarily on her own experiences as a young mother - notwithstanding the references to her daughter - did not breach the terms of Clause 6 (iv).
It did not uphold the complaint.
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