The Only Way is Ethics: Disability and illness are no longer sources of prejudice, but the media still needs to be wary

Defining an individual in terms of a condition they live with is best avoided
  • @willjgore

Over the past decade there has been a genuine advance in media coverage of subjects touching on disability and illness. The days when individuals with psychological disorders were liable to be labelled “nutter” are, one hopes, consigned to the past.

There are several reasons for this change. Representative groups and charities have improved the ways they interact with the media – the relationship, once frequently confrontational, is now generally collaborative. The Press Complaints Commission did considerable work around reporting mental health, which also had a positive impact. Celebrity revelations of mental illness, and the barrier-breaking ability of social media, have had the effect of reducing prejudice. The profile of the London 2012 Paralympics raised awareness that physical disability is no obstacle to achievement.

Guides about appropriate terminology can be hugely helpful to journalists. But that isn’t to say there are not occasional slips. As a matter of policy, The Independent avoids the term “handicapped”, and rightly so, given its dated connotations. Its appearance in a news report a couple of weeks ago was very much the result of an oversight, rather than a return to outmoded phraseology.

Similarly, defining an individual in terms of a condition they live with is best avoided. A recent report on our website, about a man whose epileptic seizure had been mistaken for violence by the police, was perfectly worded except in its headline reference to “epileptic son”.

It is possible to be too coy, of course, and there will always be the PC-gone-mad brigade who would call a spade a spade, even if it objected and pointed out that it was a trowel. There is certainly a balance to be struck. But the strides made in recent years to improve understanding of physical and mental impairment have been hugely important. Continued media vigilance is crucial if those advances are not to be undone.

No profit for monkey business

Our front page last Thursday included a joyful image of a grinning macaque who, back in 2011, took the ultimate selfie – much to the surprise of wildlife photographer David Slater, whose camera had been nabbed by the cheeky monkey.

The image has hit the headlines again because of a dispute over the rightful copyright owner. The Wikimedia Foundation, owners of Wikipedia, has argued that Mr Slater has no legitimate claim because he did not take the picture. Sadly for the macaque, it seems that copyright cannot vest in non-human photographers, so he won’t be raking in royalties. Wikimedia says the image falls into the public domain.

Mr Slater disagrees and argues that he took specialist equipment half-way around the world in order to capture images of macaques in their natural habitat; he hired a local guide and walked with the primates for several days; in short, he created the precise circumstances in which an inquisitive animal could pick up his camera and take a load of snaps.

Mr Slater surely deserves to benefit from onward use of an image that he, in effect, created. But how about this: I go to Indonesia to photograph the flora and fauna with my four-year-old in tow. I set up my kit, I create the right conditions and then discover that my own little monkey has fired off a set of pictures, among which is a corker. My moral right to benefit from sales of the picture may be similar to Mr Slater’s but the law would presumably side with the kiddiewink. Perhaps that’s just the difference between monkey business and child’s play.

Will Gore is Deputy Managing Editor of The Independent, i, Independent on Sunday and the Evening Standard Twitter: @willjgore