How to picture child poverty: The Mirror may have used a stock photo, but there was nothing fake about the story

Is there no similar girl aged four crying out of hunger today?

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Twitter is many things, and one of them is a gigantic classroom full of insufferable swots with their hands up going “Me! Me! I know! I know!” You cannot get away with anything without a Twitter swot pointing out you are wrong. So when the Mirror ran a picture of a crying child, apparently hungry, to illustrate its front-page story that one million Britons (including 330,000 children) are now using food banks, up popped someone to declare that the youngster was not British, but American, she was not crying because she was starving, but because she had lost her pet earthworm, and it had been taken in 2009, not 2014. It turned out the Mirror had used a picture by the American photographer Lauren Rosenbaum, who had documented her daughter Anne’s tears over the earthworm, and later had sold it to Getty’s picture library for general use.

The Mirror made a mistake by failing to include a phrase like “picture posed by model” or “library picture” alongside its splash. But despite this, it was absolutely right to jar its readers into noticing this shocking statistic by using a highly emotive picture of a crying child. Because, without a picture, a statistic is an abstract number – fleetingly disturbing, but easily logged among those other unfathomable and unwieldy figures that we are inundated with every day. Reporting that the number of children using food banks has risen to 330,000 is difficult, particularly when this is simply one huge figure replacing another slightly smaller one.

Fifteen years ago, the Labour government set a target of halving child poverty by 2020. You could not find a better example of an abstract concept in Whitehall. And perhaps because people were not angry enough, before the last election Labour admitted the target was unlikely to be met. Since then, ministers have argued about whether the definition is the right one, and the coalition is currently in a mess deciding how to proceed. But while those of us lucky enough not to go hungry ourselves may feel a general concern about child poverty – besides those excellent charities who work every day to alleviate it – does it haunt our every waking hour? It is not, after all, like it is our own child, staring us in the face every morning, in tears because she has nothing to eat. No, while the most photographed infant in the world is the chubby-thighed Prince George, who will never know what it is like to miss a meal thanks to want, we do not have to face up to the scandal of 300,000 hungry British children: they remain just a number. This cannot be right.

Those who cried “fake!” at the Mirror’s front page are missing the bigger picture. A stock photo, yes, but there is nothing fake about this story. Do they really believe there is not a similar girl aged four crying out of hunger in Britain today? Not just one, in fact, but hundreds of thousands of children relying on food banks. If the child had really been in a food bank queue, the Mirror would have been accused of invasion of privacy, exploiting a vulnerable child and her family. Perhaps it would be easier for people to get the message if those 330,000 children formed a queue down Whitehall – that would surely stretch as far as the M25? Or why not imagine them filling Wembley stadium nearly four times over?

Edwina Currie, the former Conservative minister, wrote that she didn’t believe that people are going hungry in Britain today. She and others need to look harder, because they are there, if we don’t avert our eyes. Here’s another statistic: one in seven – more than 800,000 children – goes to school at least once a week without breakfast.

Those who think “benefits” is a dirty word, not a safety net, think the poor cannot be hungry because they are fat, and that food bank attendance is so high because more food banks are available – an easy “handout”. This is a lie. You have to go through an onerous system, and receive certification, besides undergo the humiliation of having to rely on this last resort, to get access.

It may be easier to think only of little Anne Rosenbaum and her lost earthworm, rather than be troubled by the grotesque reality of a starving girl in a food-bank queue in Britain, 2014. If we had to look into her eyes, maybe then we would get angry.

The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge in Australia with their precariously balanced offspring The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge in Australia with their precariously balanced offspring Warning: royal baby on display

I wish no ill of Prince George. He cannot help being well-fed, let alone a baby prince, and is clearly adored by his family and those he encounters on the royal tour of New Zealand and Australia. I do wonder, however, whether his parents have quite got the hang of holding him correctly.

In all the photos during this tour, the Duke and Duchess are holding him outwards, rather precariously, towards the camera, rather than having him leaning in towards them. Some suggest this is because he is an active, wriggly baby who wants to see everything that is going on. This may be so, although isn’t it surely that he is merely being paraded for the cameras?

Shout down the braying MPs

Another week goes by and another story erupts about women’s role in politics. I would love not to have to go on about this issue all the time, but this weekend John Bercow, the Speaker, leaves me with no choice. In an interview with the BBC, Bercow said that there were some female MPs who no longer want to take part in PMQs because it is too rowdy and they are jeered when they stand up to ask a question.

If this is true, it is depressing. While I know women are in the minority in Westminster, and it often feels like an old boys’ club, shouldn’t every female MP take it upon herself to be as prominent as possible, not only for her constituents but also for all women who want to see gender equality in Parliament? If Harriet Harman can do a full six questions when standing in for Ed Miliband, surely other women can bear to ask just one?

@janemerrick23

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