Naked child photos case forces rethink

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More explicit and detailed guidelines over the treatment of "obscene" photographs will come into force at the end of the month, after criticism of the way in which the ITN newsreader Julia Somerville was treated.

Ms Somerville and her partner were cleared after a Kodak employee working at Boots in Covent Garden, central London, contacted police over dozens of photographs of her seven-year-old daughter in the bath.

The case left many parents casting an eye over their family albums, worrying just how far their pictures might be misunderstood if taken out of context.

Now, both individual companies and their trade organisation, the Photo Marketing Association, are tightening up policy to avoid further accusations of what Ms Somerville called "a deplorable invasion of privacy".

Many believe that the law, which does not define indecency, should be reconsidered.

Supasnaps, the high street developing and processing chain, has been consulting with the Crown Prosecution Service and social services over their present guidelines to protect staff and customers alike. They have set up a series of checks within different levels of the company so that several people view the photographs before they are sent to the police.

"What is artistic is always highly subjective and so that is why we put the decision through four stages," said Nick Joslin, Supasnaps' marketing manager. "We don't want to put an innocent customer through any grief."

George Ward, managing director of Bonusprint, another national processor and developer, agreed: "We have a policy that anything that could be construed as at all doubtful is to be referred to the head of security, an ex-policeman. If he has any doubt then it goes to the managing director. I think you've got to be very, very careful."

It is an offence to print obscene photos that are intended for publication and also an offence to send them through the post. Processing companies can be charged under three different Acts - the Obscene Publications Act 1959, the Postal Act 1989 and Protection of Children Act 1978.

The Photo Marketing Association has been consulting Scotland Yard's vice squad and will amend its guidelines by the end of the month, after the leading processing companies have had a chance to comment.

There are, at present, guidelines for five sorts of photographs, ranging from "artistic" pictures of unclothed men or women (which may be returned to the customer) to photographs of naked children, who are being touched or abused (the vice squad should be called in and the negatives and prints kept safe).

Frank Hatton, the association's director of UK operations, pointed to a "grey area". "If two naked people are holding hands, obviously there's nothing wrong. You have to use your imagination, look at the legal situation - but also use common sense," he said.

The present picture - what subject matter is acceptable and what is not

1. Photographs of unclothed men or women in artistic [non-suggestive] poses may be returned to the customer without comment.

2. If both sexes are featured on a photograph without clothes, these may be passed provided they are not touching. If they are touching, return the negatives to the customer and destroy any prints.

3. If photographs focus unnecessarily on the genitalia, only the negatives should be returned to the customer, the prints should be destroyed and the customer requested not to submit any similar material.

4. If the pictures depict contact between nude people and could be considered of a sexual nature then destroy the prints, ensure the manager locks the negatives in a safe place and invite the customer to visit the laboratory and collect their negatives.

5. If children are featured on the photographs in an unclothed state, look to see if they are relaxed. If they appear unnatural or forced or are being touched or abused in any way, ask your local vice squad to come and advise you on your course of action. Do not return negatives or prints until they have been cleared.