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Thursday, July 02, 2009 

Toothless, useless, the Press Complaints Commission strikes again.

To get an idea of just how useless the Press Complaints Commission is, you only have to look at its non-investigation into the Alfie Patten disaster. You would have thought that they might just have something to say about how the Sun, the People and the Sunday Mail had almost certainly paid his family for personal interviews which led to some of the most invasive and potentially damaging intrusion into the private lives of children for some years, only for it to subsequently turn out that, oops, Alfie wasn't the father after all.

Today the Commission announced that it is to do, well, nothing. To be fair, that isn't quite what it's done. Because of the restrictions imposed by the High Court, which prevent the families of both Patten and Chantelle Steadman from being approached, the PCC supposedly has been unable to determine exactly what was paid, what was expected in return for that payment, how the families intended to use the money, how concerned the newspapers were about the children's welfare and the circumstances surrounding the original mistaken identification of Alfie as the father. It has instead elaborated on its guidelines on payments to parents for material about their children, which while welcome, is not for a moment going to stop this happening again.

While it's unfortunate that the families themselves cannot tell their side of the story, this is letting the opposite side completely off the hook. Is the PCC a regulator or is it not? A regulator with any teeth would have demanded that the newspapers themselves reveal what was promised, and just how, if the reports of the Sun setting up a trust fund for the child are accurate, it was intending to deliver the payment. It isn't clear that this information was sought at all; instead, it seems the PCC was relying purely on the families to inform them of what deals were made.

What the papers did provide the PCC with, predictably, was their arguments on how it certainly was in the public interest for them to claim that a 13-year-old who looked more like 8 had fathered a child:

The newspapers argued that the articles involved the important issue of the prevalence, and impact, of teenage pregnancy within British society. By identifying the principals involved and presenting them in a particular way, the story dramatised and personalised these issues in a way that stimulated a wide-ranging public debate, involving contributions from senior politicians (which included the Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition). The newspapers said that they were fulfilling an important duty in publicising to a large audience a social problem that is perceived to be widespread. Their position was that the case was, on the evidence available at the time of publication, an exceptional example of the problem.

This is all true. This however doesn't take into account the fact that it was not in either Patten or Steadman's best interests for the entire world to know intimate details about their lives, with their parents making the decision for them based presumably on the fact that there was money offered in exchanged. There was only a story because of how Patten looked; 13-year-olds being fathers is rare, but not that rare. 15-year-olds being fathers and mothers however, is not a story at all, as in this case it subsequently turned out to be. Some might think it should be a story, and that it's a sad reflection on society at large when it isn't, on which they might have something approaching a point, but that isn't the issue here. Most damningly, the newspapers don't seem to have taken any real interest in how their stories would affect the children, and in the case of the People, doesn't seem to have decided that how Patten had to be begged, almost forced to come and speak to them might have suggested that they shouldn't be running such reports.

The Sun especially must be laughing at the weakness of the PCC. To say they profited from the story would be an understatement: almost purely down to the Patten report, which went around the world at the social horror of a baby himself becoming a father, they sky-rocketed to the top of the ABCe tables, becoming the most popular UK newspaper website for Feburary, with over 27 million unique visitors. However much they promised to pay the Patten family, they must have surely more than made their money back. For a newspaper editor who has dedicated herself to campaigning for child protection, either for Sarah's law or for "justice" for Baby P, Rebekah Wade seems to have completely lost her moral compass over Patten, and the only organisation which could have punished her has spurned its opportunity.

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