Podium: Our press is still too intrusive

From a speech by the Chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party to the Guild of Editors in Cambridge
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The Independent Culture
WHAT I hear from the public is a continuing belief that the press has still not got the balance right on questions of privacy, and that, important as privacy is, inaccuracy in news reporting is still the main failing.

Let me give you three examples of cases I picked up in May this year.

The first concerns the Daily Mail of 7 May. Under the headline, "Why I sent my daughter to prison", the Mail told the story of how a mother had informed the police of the drug addiction of her daughter, which resulted in the daughter getting a prison sentence.

She did this to protect her granddaughter, saying, she "isn't a fit mother". The paper printed a head-and-shoulders picture of the four-year-old granddaughter with her name underneath. You don't need to be a parent to know that such publicity is not in the child's interest. No child should set off to nursery, or wherever, with their name and photo on the front page of a tabloid, announcing that her mum has just been sent to prison by her grandmother.

When I took this case up with the Mail they tried to justify it by saying that the grandparents had given permission. Leaving aside the legal point that imprisonment does not override all the mother's rights concerning her child, the paper ignores the main point, which is whether their conduct was in the child's interests. These interests should be paramount, not the grandparents' or the newspaper's, and the legitimacy of the story did not require identification of the child.

In my view, this was a breach of the Press Complaints Commission code, but what was most informative here was the chairman, Lord Wakeham's, response to me.

He acknowledged it was an important point and asked to be kept informed. I still don't know whether he thinks it was a breach of the code, or whether anything further happened.

The second concerned The Mirror of 5 May. The story here concerned Peter Sutcliffe, dubbed by the tabloids "the Yorkshire Ripper". The code (Article 13) says the press should avoid prejudicial or pejorative references to the mentally ill. Article 13 exists not only to defend the rights of the individual but also to prevent the spread of fear and hatred of the mentally ill. That didn't trouble The Mirror, who described Peter Sutcliffe as a "monster", and another patient as a "psycho killer".

This story needs to be seen in the context of other, similar stories about patients in high-security hospitals who have killed. The story had similarities with a Sunday Mirror story of 17 August last year. A sub- headline said, "they're selling off Broadmoor to build a housing estate, and moving crazed killers to an old folks' home". Ignoring the fact that this story was blatantly and stupidly untrue, and therefore breached Article 1, it again breaches the letter and spirit of Article 13.

Those of you who doubt my interpretation of this should re-read the editorial of the 38th report of the PCC, where editors were counselled to avoid epithets such as "basket case" and "nutters", because of the danger of creating a climate of fear and rejection.

It was written specifically about the high-security hospitals, such as Broadmoor. It should be no part of a newspaper's agenda to continue to spread fear about the behaviour of patients who are in secure accommodation.

My third example comes from The Sun of 8 May this year. A headline ran, "Joanna Lumley's son in clinic agony", with the accompanying detailed story about the family, and the interesting comment that the clinic "prides itself on keeping secret the identities of its famous patients".

The only reason for Mr Lumley's fame, as far as I can see, is that his mother is Joanna. The article names other people who have been treated there. Whether or not this is a technical breach, it is certainly a breach of the intention of the code.

To the best of my knowledge, no action was taken on any of these stories. The PCC would have acted if there had been a complaint. But was the four- year-old to lodge her own complaint? Was Peter Sutcliffe to complain, or was the Secretary of State meant to do it for him? Joanna Lumley might have considered it, but I suspect she came to the same conclusion as many of my correspondents - namely, that it's best to keep your head down rather than relive the story. But that shouldn't allow the PCC to duck its responsibility.

The answer to this problem lies partly in higher journalistic standards and editorial supervision. And here I should make a plea for better training for journalists. But it also lies in the PCC exercising its judgement about intervention, and taking a more proactive role.