Monday, 18 August 2008

Paedophile hysteria, the Sun and the Press Complaints Commission.

Outside of the realms of hypocrisy for once and instead onto the Sun's journalistic ethics, or lack thereof. Posted today on their site is a Press Complaints Commission adjudication of a story it ran back in February (the adjudication is yet to appear on the PCC's own website):

"A woman complained to the Press Complaints Commission on behalf of her son that audio visual footage published on The Sun’s website on February 21 had been obtained in breach of Clause 10 (Clandestine devices and subterfuge) of the Code.

The complaint was upheld.

The complainant said that her son had been convicted in 2007 for possession of internet pornography. Although her son had been put on the Sex Offenders Register, the judge did not restrict his movements.

However, a journalist had secretly filmed him working in a supermarket, and had obtained a photograph of him making a delivery to a nursery school kitchen, which her son had done under instruction without breaking any rules.

The newspaper published an article on the subject, and placed the video footage on its website.

The newspaper said that there was a clear public interest. The use of subterfuge in obtaining the audiovisual footage was acceptable, as it was the only way of showing readers the complainant’s son at work in the store.

That said, the newspaper removed the footage from its website and undertook not to reuse it, unless there was a clear public interest to do so.


The Commission concluded that there was a considerable public interest justification for the story as a whole, given that the complainant’s son had made a delivery – as part of his job – to a children’s nursery following his conviction for distributing, making and possessing pornographic images of children.

The newspaper was entitled to highlight, and comment robustly on, this situation.

It was more difficult, however, to justify the taking and use of the audiovisual footage of the complainant’s son at work in the supermarket, given that the public interest element of the story related only to the delivery to the nursery.

The Commission has always said that there must be a powerful public interest justification for the use of undercover filming. On this occasion, there was no dispute that he worked for the supermarket, and the footage was not necessary to prove it.

There was therefore insufficient justification for the subterfuge, and the result was a breach of Clause 10 of the Code on this one specific point.

The Commission rejected other points of complaint about the article itself, which also appeared in the newspaper."

The original report is still on the Sun's website here (isn't it wonderful what putting paedophile+supermarket+nursery into Google brings up?) while the Salisbury Journal has a similar article, based on the Sun's, here.

It's immediately clear from the Sun article that the PCC adjudication is completely correct and that it could hardly have come to a different conclusion; Spencer is quite clearly wearing Sainsbury's uniform in the photograph. Why it felt the need to trail him around the supermarket itself is a mystery: is it being too cynical to wonder whether the Sun was hoping to catch him leering at a child or otherwise while he went about his work, or did so to identify the specific Sainsbury's where he was employed? It perhaps based its story around this one from just under a week earlier, where it "exposed" another paedophile working for a supermarket, this time Tesco, and in this case the video, again apparently taken through subterfuge, is still available.

Where I differ from the PCC is on whether this genuinely was in the public interest. Perhaps it could be justified if it was an article in the local paper, but this is in a national. What do the good burghers of almost anywhere other than Wiltshire care that a man with a conviction for possession of child pornography made a delivery to a nursery along with another worker? The other worker is perhaps key to the whole public interest question. If Spencer had made the delivery on his own, then perhaps it could be justified. As it is, any possibility that Spencer would have had any opportunity to abduct or abuse a child is rendered far more unlikely.

The publishing of the article raises a lot more ethical questions also. I'm sure everyone's aware of Sun editor Rebekah Wade's history, having started the notorious "name and shame" campaign whilst editor of the News of the World, resulting in anti-paedophile protests in Portsmouth and in a paediatrician having her house vandalised, so this sort of "expose" is par for the course. But what purpose exactly is it meant to achieve? While we don't know how severe the abuse (if any physical was depicted) in the 283 images he had in his possession were, the relatively light sentence he received, without any restrictions on his movements suggest that it was regarded at the less serious end of the scale. Certainly the fact that Sainsbury's kept him on, where you would expect he would come into contact with children, suggests that they also didn't regard him as any great threat. Indeed, why is the fact that he visited a nursery at all regarded as some sort of big no-no which shouldn't be crossed? If we're supposed to fear that he might have abducted or abused a child while there, why are we also not afraid that he might do the same when he's not working, or just out on the street, where he's far more likely to come across children alone or without supervision whom would be far easier to kidnap or take advantage of?

Fundamentally, what I'm attempting to address is how we deal with paedophiles as a whole. The Sun's take is pretty transparent: that they should be dealt with as harshly as possible, kept away from all children in much the same fashion, and only work in jobs where they are unlikely to come in contact with them. The question ought to be how do we rehabilitate them or help them rejoin society after such a conviction. The problem is that some, including it seems the Sun, seem to think that such a conviction means that they can be dismissed as sub-human, shunned, and in some cases denied work all together because of their past. The other approach, rather than forcing them underground, seems to be the one which Spencer and Sainsbury's in this case seem to have followed. Which is it that is likely to be more dangerous?

To be clear, I'm by no means in favour of the kind of censorship that would mean the Sun couldn't publish the story again tomorrow if it wanted to. What I do favour is examining the ethics involved in such a story and, when they seem, like in this case, to be lacking, to be heavily critical. To get a taste for the kind of thought which the Sun's story fomented, you only have to look at the comments:

"This is where supervision fails. All those convicted of child related offences should be tagged and monitored via a satelite tracking system. If they enter a forbidden zone (eg. School, nursery etc) they could be picked up immediately by police."

"They reckon for every 1 convicted there are 10 unknown perverts.
when ever i am out with my 3 youngsters i am constantly watching every bloke who glances at my kids, but what can you do? You cant lock em up cause there are no prison spaces. So you have to let them get on with a normal life, and in that normal life they are going to come into contact with kids, so what's the answer? CASTRATE them, thats what they should do"

"Paedo's should not be given a job where they come into contact or go near any children. Tesco deliver my shopping and my children help the man unload the shopping from the van. I would be up in arms if I found out he was a paedo.

Children's safety and wellbeing must come first."

"Once a perv, always a perv! very dangerous sitation to be placed in. How would the conversation go, hey little girl come to the nice sainsbury man!"

"But yes, I think they should all be tagged, they should all have a marking on there head, so everyone knows what they have done, and they are easy to identify."

Although it must be noted there were a couple of dissenters.

Actually perhaps there is hypocrisy here after all: here's Lorraine Kelly from a few weeks back complaining about how we can't comfort a needy child:

"In the 14 years since my child was born, a sinister and almost hysterical mind-set has come into force. It is one that rigidly adheres to the belief that all adults are predatory beasts and there is a paedophile on every street in Britain."

I wonder which newspaper and editor helped to foster this "sinister and almost hysterical mind-set"?

And seeing as we're here, here's La Kelly in the aftermath of the Josef Fritzl case:

"The Austrian police should have a massive recruitment drive and set up a special unit to search every single cellar in their entire country. Who knows what more vile horrors would be revealed." The cops should "start arming themselves with pickaxes, torches and strong stomachs and start searching those cellars".

Oh, and the very same commentator on the dangers to your kids while away from home:

"Without becoming paranoid and wrapping your children in cotton wool, you have to be aware they can be in MORE danger on holiday than at home. Child molesters haunt holiday camps, theme parks and family resorts. You need to be on your guard."


Daniel Hoffmann-Gill said...

Good post.

The current bun has to have people to hate, it's not allowed to hate Muslims, Poles and black people anymore, so paedophiles and Argies are safe havens for their nasty, ill-conceived rage.

Sim-O said...

It's up on the PCC site now, here