Media: Why every child needs a media manager

Children must be protected from the press, whatever the sins of their fathers or mothers.
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FOURTEEN-YEAR-OLD girls worry about these things: Which TV stars you're supposed to love and which to hate. Skin care. School friends. How not to smudge your eye-liner when you find yourself weeping during adolescence.

Which is why, when we envision Mary Bell explaining to her 14-year-old daughter that Mother is a murderer - with the sound of tabloid journalists thumping on the door in the background - we feel so shocked and so moved.

Last month, when the tabloids hounded Mary Bell into revealing her family secret, they shattered 14 years of carefully constructed lies.

Literally constructed. For the order which protected Mary Bell's daughter from the secret of her mother's past was an invention purely for her. Justice Balcombe created Mary Bell Orders in 1984, building on the court's inherent jurisdiction to take care of children.

If we can issue an injunction against the world to preserve a ship, argued Justice Balcombe, then obviously we can do so to preserve a child.

Since 1984, these freshly manufactured orders have been put to diligent work. They have been used to stop publicity about children born of surrogacy agreements or orphaned in ferry disasters, about children who have been sexually abused or who are terminally ill. They have been used to shield the daughter of Sarah Keays, and the children of Rosemary West.

So why has the Mary Bell Order had such momentum? Why, in a country that does not protect the privacy of adults, do we allow children this privilege? The answer is two-fold.

First, society sees children as peculiarly susceptible to publicity. Second, society senses that children ought to be shielded from awful truths.

When Justice Balcombe invented the order, he was foreseeing a life of whispers for Mary Bell's daughter. Indeed, whenever judges protect children's privacy (either through Mary Bell Orders, or through a statutory equivalent that protects children involved in legal proceedings), their concern is with the image of the child in a cosy family living room, safe from the harsh public world of media and gossip.

So in 1912 the House of Lords exempted child wards from the principle of open justice, since "The affairs are truly private affairs; the transactions are transactions truly intra familiam."

Tim Crook, a journalist and academic who has challenged numerous court privacy orders, says that he rarely hears genuine evidence that publicity causes children trauma. "This is simply assumed," he explains. "The child's need for privacy becomes a kind of mantra, so that it's unfashionable heresy to even question the logic of the assumption."

Mr. Crook also worries that criminal parents can shelter behind the spurious privacy needs of their children, depriving the public of information and eclipsing the rights of crime victims.

Dr. Judith Libow, a child psychiatrist, might disagree - at least in relation to the privacy needs of certain children. One of the handful of people to publish research on child privacy, Dr. Libow points out that children who have been involved in a trauma as, for example, the victims of crime or of natural disaster, may find their trauma exacerbated by publicity. "Contact with the media is unique in its immediacy and intensity," writes Dr. Libow.

When Justice Balcombe invented his Mary Bell Order, he may also have been thinking that Mary Bell's baby should never discover her mother's terrible past. The idea of sheltering children from unpleasant truths is not new. It is the foundation of the film and video classification system. It also, ironically, is precisely the reason why child and family legal proceedings were shielded from publicity, even before children's special privacy needs were acknowledged.

Anxious about the flood of publicity surrounding divorce courts in the 19th century, Queen Victoria wrote to the Government and asked whether nothing could be done to prevent it: "These cases," she fretted," fill now almost daily a large portion of the newspapers, and are of so scandalous a character that it makes it almost impossible for a paper to be trusted in the hands of a young lady or boy."

Complaints like this led to publicity restrictions on divorce courts that remain in force today.

The idea that happy childhood depends on blissful ignorance revolves around myths about the child's essential purity - myths which may stem from adult neuroses, and which may in fact endanger children.

Mary Bell claimed that she was waiting for her daughter to be ready before she revealed her turbulent past. And that is the key. Secrets ought to be revealed to children, but parents know best how and when to reveal them.

Children should sometimes be exposed to the media - but parents know best how and when this should happen. After experiencing trauma, explains Dr. Libow, children "need to feel that their world is once again under control and especially that their parents are again in authority."

Sometimes, of course, parents are not good media managers. One prominent actress' mother signed a consent form allowing nude photos of her adolescent daughter to be prominently displayed.

What Mary Bell has in common with Sarah Keays is this: that at some point, each of them was denied the right to be their children's media manager. Mary Bell wanted her daughter protected from press intrusion and the tabloids scuppered her chances. Sarah Keays wanted her daughter to be involved in publicity - the courts refused.

Children's media relations raise complex issues and there are no easy answers. But one thing is clear. If parents' media decisions are not respected, we may find that increasing numbers of 14-year-olds are weeping with genuine cause.