Photograph of grieving pupil was dignified: Quarterly report of Sir Gordon Downey, the Independent readers' representative

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The Independent Online
IN my last report, I reminded readers of our arrangements for handling complaints. This one gives a few recent examples of complaints received which have provided food for thought. I have no doubt that they will be borne in mind if similar issues arise in future.

Towards the end of last year, the editor received nearly 150 letters commenting adversely on the use of a photograph showing a distressed teenage girl at her school following a tragic road accident involving fellow pupils.

The editor had decided to publish the photograph because it conveyed the tragedy of the accident in a way which would not have been possible with words. The picture, although distressing, was dignified and it was widely used by the press.

In a subsequent adjudication, the Press Complaints Commission concluded that the editor was entitled to use the photograph to illustrate the enormous grief and sorrow experienced, not only at the school but throughout the country. They took into account thanks expressed to the press from the headmaster, a statement from the local education authority that they were unaware of any complaints by pupils, parents or teaching staff and the fact that access had been provided to the school campus for reporters, photographers and TV crews.

I, too, felt that the picture was justified by its dignity, although clearly not everyone would draw the line at the same point. No one, however, would dispute that this is an area which needs to be handled with great sensitivity.

Another very sensitive issue is that of possible anti-semitism, on which there have been two recent complaints. The first referred to a report from Vilnius in which it was said that Jews, among others, were alleged to be running the local 'mafia'. To my mind this was not anti-semitic, although the phrasing could have made it clearer that the allegations were based on unsubstantiated rumour.

The second case was more complex. A thoroughly complimentary profile of a public figure referred to the fact that he was Jewish. The individual concerned had not complained: indeed he might well have wanted his religion acknowledged. But to another reader the reference was gratuitous and condescending. Religion would not, he suggested, have been introduced if the man had been non-Jewish.

In general, I sympathise with this view but the issue is not always straightforward. Where, for example, someone has fled from anti-semitic persecution, it will often be more appropriate to refer to them as Jews than merely as nationals of the country from which they have fled. But, in most other cases I have no doubt that reference to a person's religion should only be made if this is very directly relevant to the story concerned.

Another subject of irritation is that of inaccurate headlines not justified by the accompanying text. There have been a number of examples of bald, apparently factual, headlines which, on further reading, are supported only by conjecture or probability. Thus, 'Lockerbie Libyans for trial' still looks a little premature several months later. Taken together, the headline and text are not misleading but, separately, they tell a different story.

Finally, I have recently had a very valid complaint from a reader in Scotland. He has pointed out that some articles - particularly relating to domestic legislation - fail to make clear whether the provisions or proposals for change apply to Scotland. He also believes newsworthy events in Scotland are under-represented and that, too often, 'Britain' or 'the country' are used to mean England and Wales. I found the latter point difficult to refute when he pointed to 'The Cancer Map of Britain', whose northernmost part was Northumberland.