In stories concerning child sex abuse, the rule must always be to err on the side of caution

The Only Way is Ethics: The issue was raised by a ruling on whether works owned by Graham Ovenden were indecent

Will Gore
Sunday 18 October 2015 17:36
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It is better to be safe than sorry in stories covering the sexual abuse of children
It is better to be safe than sorry in stories covering the sexual abuse of children

There is an apocryphal story – which has a variety of settings – in which three young men have just climbed on to a riverbank after a spot of skinny-dipping.

Suddenly, a local dignitary appears on the opposite bank. Two of the chaps swiftly cover their nether regions with their hands; the third covers his face. After the VIP has hurried away, the man who has hidden his face turns to the others and says: “So that’s how you’re recognised is it?”

This slightly daft tale came to mind last week when we reported on the hearing at which a judge was to rule on whether paintings and photographs owned by the artist Graham Ovenden were indecent and should be destroyed. Ovenden, whose work has caused controversy for decades, was convicted in 2013 of six counts of indecency with a child. Among the works in his private collection were historic photographs of pre-pubescent, naked girls, as well as paintings he had produced himself of children in states of undress. One painting of a young girl paddling was ruled by the judge not to be indecent. It showed the child wearing a top but no underwear, walking away from the painter but half turning her head. Ovenden told the court the work had been commissioned by Diana, Princess of Wales.

In the light of the judge’s ruling, there was no legal reason why we could not use the painting to illustrate our report. But would readers be uncomfortable about us showing the image in full, including the child’s bare bottom? On the other hand, since we did not know who the subject of the painting was – if indeed, it was a specific person at all – ought we to have obtained their consent before publishing it in a national newspaper? In the light of Ovenden’s convictions, was there a risk that the child in the picture might have been a victim of his abuse; and be identifiable if we did not blur her face?

To have covered the painting’s bottom half, as it were, seemed oddly coy. Pixelating the child’s face was troubling in one sense in that it might have implied definite knowledge about her status as a victim of crime – whereas, in fact, there was no evidence of that being the case. Ultimately though, if there was any possibility at all that the child was real, a victim, and recognisable by virtue of us showing her face, it was much better to be safe than sorry.

When’s it relevant to talk religion?

We reported last week that Naveeda Ikram, a Labour councillor in Bradford, had been suspended by the party following allegations of financial irregularities.

We noted in our coverage that Ms Ikram had been Britain’s first female, Muslim Lord Mayor, having served Bradford in that role for a year from 2011.

One reader questioned whether reference to Ms Ikram’s religion was strictly relevant to the story. Indeed, as a rule, we should not include details of a person’s religion – or colour, sexuality, health status and so on – unless they have a bearing on the issues we are reporting.

Yet visit Ms Ikram’s own website and its homepage message reads: “Hi, I am Naveeda Ikram. Proud to be the UK’s first female Muslim Lord Mayor; and a Labour Councillor since 2004.”

It is clear that these facts are central to Ms Ikram’s political identity. For us to have erased them would not only have been “PC gone mad”, it would also have undermined Ms Ikram’s political credentials as defined by herself.

Our story did not suggest that Ms Ikram’s religion was relevant to the allegations against her. But that’s not to say it isn’t relevant to her political story.

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

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