Are we infringing on children’s privacy?

Does criticism of the minister of education for sending her children to private schools infringe the children’s rights to privacy?

A reader brought this question to my attention in the context of a column that laid into Minister Naledi Pandor for a hypocritical lack of faith in the system she oversees. The Democratic Alliance has also been beating this drum. The column appeared in another newspaper, but the issue seems to be of enough general interest to pick up here.

My attention was drawn to a case in Britain in 2001, where Prime Minister Tony Blair complained to the Press Complaints Commission against two newspapers for reporting that his son had applied to be accepted to an Oxford College.

Blair complained that the reports infringed on provisions of the United Kingdom Press Code of Practice, specifically provisions that protect children. They should be free to complete their schooling without unnecessary intrusion, the code says, and nothing should be published about them merely because of who their parents are. The commission found the two newspapers had breached these provisions.

It said that the newspapers had not demonstrated sufficient public interest in the case, which would have allowed them to override the ”normally paramount interests of the child,” as the British code puts it.

The South African code has no special provisions to protect children. I’ve long thought this is a weakness. Surely it is reasonable to deal with the privacy of vulnerable people more sensitively than that of public figures. Children need special consideration, as do people suddenly thrust into the public spotlight through tragedy: the relatives of missing children, or of miners trapped underground, for instance.

It would be nonsense to suggest that children’s rights to privacy are absolute. In fact, an argument has been made by various lobby groups that children’s voices should be heard more on issues that affect them. And no one has consent forms signed when newspapers run pictures of children on their first day of school.

The key test is whether coverage is likely to harm the kids in any way. Journalists should consider whether the children might be victimised as a result of the coverage, for instance.

Can media attention in and of itself be harmful? I think it can, if it is sustained and intrusive. Children need to be left alone to grow up without the feeling that the world’s eyes are on them. That is the sentiment behind the British clause about leaving them alone to get on with their schooling. I don’t think that an isolated bit of attention generally does much harm, though.

The context of the coverage could also make it harmful, even if it is isolated. When Mark Isaacs put his children up for public display in the midst of his wife’s rape claims against Judge Siraj Desai, the media coverage must have added to the distress those children were already suffering. It was intrusive and damaging.

The British ruling makes the point that the Blairs took up the case to set a precedent. They wanted to ward off the media, for fear that this could be the beginning of some kind of feeding frenzy. The British media have an insatiable fascination for anyone famous or those connected to famous people. The emblem of this phenomenon — and its possible consequences — was Princess Diana.

We should also not lose sight of the fact that celebrities have a complex relationship with the media. Much as they often complain about media interest, they also feed off it.

And those who are associated with them may benefit from the reflected fame. Just recently, it was reported that a string of Nelson Mandela’s relatives were using the name Mandela even though their surnames should normally have been different.

The Press Complaint Commission says the test is whether a particular story would have been run if there had not been a connection to somebody famous. It’s hard to see this test applied in reality: Would we even know who Chelsy Davy is if she wasn’t going out (or not — I forget) with Prince Harry?

The commission says that it might have ruled differently if the choices the Blairs or their children were making were at odds with public policy. In fact, that is exactly the point made about Pandor: that her personal decisions contradicted her public stance.

The focus is firmly on her. The children appear only marginally.

Unless Pandor could show that her children suffered victimisation or other harm as a result of the coverage, I don’t think she could use her children’s rights to privacy to protect herself against this criticism.

The Mail & Guardian’s ombud provides an independent view of the paper’s journalism. If you have any complaints you would like addressed, you can contact Franz Krüger at [email protected] You can also phone the paper on 011 727 7000 and leave a message

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