Michael Williams: Readers' editor

We like to start them young in this trade
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The Independent Online

The other day I was asked by a magazine to pose with my six-month-old daughter Hero for an article I'd written. Nothing profound – a humorous piece about "bringing up baby". I readily agreed. In fact, like most busy journalists, I had volunteered my children for pictures before, without a thought. It usually happens when there's a plea from the picture desk: "Anyone got a child of the right age for a shot to go with a piece about primary schools, literacy, homework, etc?" Staff are usually keen to help. There are probably pics of all my children in the cuttings libraries of various newspapers – and it all seems rather harmless.

But an email from a reader last week has made me think again. "I am a mother and was upset," writes Marianne Douglas from Bromsgrove, "by the use of the picture of the child on page 4 last week to illustrate an article on child obesity. This boy cannot be much more than 12 and is clearly overweight to a distressing degree. It seems quite wrong of you to use it."

As it happens, Ms Douglas, the Press Complaints Commission's Code of Practice goes to huge lengths to safeguard the depiction of children in newspapers. For instance, children under 16 must not be interviewed or photographed on any issue to do with their own welfare without a parent's consent, nor can they be interviewed or pictured on school premises without the permission of the school. Parents cannot be paid for material affecting the well-being of their children. And journalists cannot use the fame of a parent as sole justification for publication.

J K Rowling, the Harry Potter author, won a landmark ruling in a case against 'OK!' magazine, which pictured her eight-year-old daughter on holiday on a private beach. The complaint was upheld because the unsolicited publicity would affect the child's welfare – and it was only published because of the fame of her mother.

The only exceptions to these rules are innocuous pictures of children in a public place – so long as there are no names or details that might embarrass the child.

So what about the boy pictured in the 'IoS' last week? Inquiries reveal that the photo was "posed by a model", and was obtained from one of the world's biggest and most respected picture agencies – Corbis, privately owned by Bill Gates. Because permission was given, the boy is not readily identifiable and there are no personal details, it does not contravene the PCC code. But like you, Ms Douglas, I'm uneasy. I once allowed my (normal-sized) six-year-old son to pose on a weight machine to accompany an 'IoS' front-page story – also, by coincidence, on the subject of childhood obesity. He thought it was fun. But would I be so keen on letting it happen again?

Corrections and clarifications

In last week's paper it was said that Judith Weir "will now be known as the woman who killed off the BBC's Composer Weekend". This was not intended literally: the BBC'S decision to replace the annual Weekend with a "new flexible format", announced in detail at the event, had been under discussion for at least a year.

Message Board: Is it safe for women to walk alone at night?

Jacqui Smith, the Home Secretary, admitted to feeling unsafe on the streets after dark, and 'IoS' writer Katy Guest felt the same. Readers came out in force:


If we all bow to the argument that the streets are unsafe, we allow deserted streets to become the norm – no-go areas where the occasional criminal has the pick of the few who have no choice. Busy, peopled streets deter crime.


Police should stop young males on the street in the evenings and do body searches. Bring in a mandatory sentence of five years for possession of a knife. It's all about deterrence on the street, and at the moment there isn't any.


If women – and men – who can afford it avoid the streets at night, it puts at risk those who have no option but to walk. We can all help each other by being out there, not cowering in cars.


Most of us have to walk around London in the dark from time to time, and sometimes precautions don't work. One evening before Christmas, I was mugged. People walked by, oblivious.

A Brown

I don't agree with David Davis that Paris is safer than London. I live five minutes from the Bastille. Two weeks ago I was shot three times in the body, twice in the head. I don't believe any woman is safe in the streets alone late at night.


Jacqui Smith's general remarks about safety on the streets at night have been turned (by the media?) into an angst-fest about women's vulnerability. As you get older, you worry about that kind of thing happening a lot less.


It's not women who should be worried – it's young men. Despite all the media hoo-ha and claims from worried females, it's much more dangerous to be a young man around town.


Violent crime figures are falling, yet vulnerable people feel more at risk. They always do. But round up hoodies after 9pm because we don't like the look of them? I don't think so.

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