The Mirror's photo of a crying child isn't what it seems, but that doesn't make it a hoax

The paper used the tears of an American girl to sell its story on child hunger - so what?

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Not for the first time, the Daily Mirror finds itself accused of using a misleading image on the front page of its newspaper today. An arresting picture of a distressed child is used to highlight a report on poverty in Britain in 2014. The written report is itself a fine example of the paper’s long tradition of campaigning for the socially disadvantaged.

But the noble intention of highlighting the fact that 330,000 food parcels have been distributed to hungry children this year has been undermined as the heart-rending photograph of a young girl with a crumpled face was not what it seemed.

The bawling infant is an American called Anne who appeared in pictures shared on the popular photography site Flickr in 2009. The woman who uploaded the images, Lauren Rosenbaum, posted a touching story in which she explained that the tears were the result of a lost earthworm which Anne had found in the park and nicknamed “Flower”. In other lovingly-taken photographs, Anne is shown to living an apparently happy, almost enchanted life.

The loss of “Flower” the earthworm in an American park in 2009 is hardly the picture to illustrate a front page story that reads: “Britain 2014. We’re the sixth largest economy in the world. We have more millionaires than ever before…So why have we handed out ONE MILLION food parcels? And new figures reveal 330,000 went to hungry children…shock report pages 4&5”.

I have some sympathy with the Mirror. The poverty issue is a real one – and no doubt there were genuine tears this morning from kids pained with hunger in contemporary Britain. But trying to take a picture of a crying hungry child with the consent of parents who might feel in some way responsible for that hunger is an assignment that would challenge any news photographer. It’s the sort of picture that might result from the kind of long embedded investigation that the media rarely has the resources for these days.

The Mirror decided to use an emotive generic picture of a crying child. The paper would have understood that its worthy report would have lacked impact without illustration to pull on the heart strings of its readers. So it obtained the image of Anne from the respected global picture agency Getty which, with the permission of the girl’s parents, offered it as part of its vast library as a stock representation of a crying child.

The paper’s logic in using a stock picture was sound enough. Had the shot been of, say, “Rosie, 5, from Leeds” it might have won admiration from photo-journalists but the Mirror would almost certainly have drawn criticism for exploiting a real British child and worsening their plight by putting them on the front page of a paper.

The paper didn’t caption the picture and in days gone by, before Google and Flickr, Anne would probably never have been identified.

But the revelation of the photo’s genesis is uncomfortable for the Mirror because it has a track record in using front page pictures of questionable provenance. Only this month it had to apologise to a software developer when it published a picture of him holding a giant rat at his home in London and claimed the shot depicted a pest controller in Liverpool.

A decade ago, it infamously splashed faked pictures of British soldiers abusing an Iraqi captive in the back of an Army lorry. The pictures were later revealed to have been taken not in Iraq but in Preston as part of a “calculated and malicious hoax” which eventually led to the sacking of then Mirror editor Piers Morgan.

The dissemination on social media of the history of this latest Mirror front page picture won’t help the paper’s future ability to have impact on the news-stand. But the Mirror’s intentions here were good – and there is no case for suggesting that the current editor Lloyd Embley should suffer the same fate as Piers.

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