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Children’s Privacy

Volume 758: debated on Tuesday 6 January 2015

Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the effects on children of the publication of photographs of them without agreement or permission; and what consideration they have given to the aims of Protect: the Campaign for Children’s Privacy.

My Lords, I understand the importance of ensuring that children’s privacy is respected and that safeguards are in place to protect it. The Government have introduced the new system of independent press self-regulation and there are remedies available under civil law. The Government are committed to tackling the production and distribution of indecent images of children and criminal offences are available in such cases.

My Lords, we have to be clear about what Protect: the Campaign for Children’s Privacy is asking the Government to consider. Surely it is entirely reasonable and responsible that when identifying an individual child in a published photograph, there should either be consent or good reason. If not, the image should be pixilated or blurred. The Minister referred to self-regulation. If that is working, why did Hannah Weller have to go to court and why did the judge say that the law needs clarification? Will the Minister agree to meet Protect in order to understand parents’ concerns and consider how children’s privacy can be protected?

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for her question. I should say first that my right honourable friend the Deputy Prime Minister has met campaigners and I would be very happy to facilitate further meetings if that would be helpful. In respect of the particular case to which she referred, this is an ongoing legal matter and I am sure that she will understand if I do not comment on the specifics. But when it comes to the matter at hand, which is that of self-regulation, it is important to note that the Editors’ Code of Practice actually stipulates that where a child is under the age of 16, consent should be sought. That is something which should happen under the code and under self-regulation. Where that does not happen, there is then redress through the civil courts.

My Lords, society’s clear moral duty is to protect all children. Section 8 of the Ofcom Broadcasting Code does so and is very specific about the privacy and protection of children. All broadcasters apply these rules responsibly. What can be done to ensure that similar rules which refer more specifically to this type of photography are included in the print media code of practice and adhered to in order to protect children from unwanted exposure and potential harm?

I am grateful to my noble friend for that question. Section 1.8 of the Ofcom code refers to the protection of children and that is mirrored by the code of ethics under the self-regulatory system. What we need to do is ensure that that is working and that people are protected. At the same time, there is a need for a balance on the one hand between large crowd scenes in which children might be involved, or the premiere of a movie where a child star might be putting themselves in the public domain, and situations where privacy is involved. A fine balance needs to be achieved.

My Lords, does the noble Lord accept that those who have disabilities are still having huge difficulties in coming forward and reporting child sexual abuse or the need for protection? Will he assure the House that in all aspects of dealing with this matter—whether with regard to the media, the social justice arena or the law—he will take on board the specific needs of those with disabilities, in particular those with autism?

This applies to everybody equally, and those with disabilities should come forward. Those guilty of abuse should be prosecuted. There is a straight line between what we are talking about, which may be general intrusion such as the publication of a photograph, and, of course, the publication of sexualised images of children, on which the full weight of the criminal law needs rightly to come down.

My Lords, surely the examples that the Minister gave are very different. If there is a general crowd scene, and an individual child is not identified by name, that is distinct from circumstances where a child is identifiable and where consent has not been given. Under what circumstances does the public interest require that a child’s face should not be pixilated? Is there any case at all, in terms of journalistic integrity or the freedom of investigative journalism, that requires an identifiable child’s face to be published without consent?

The noble Lord puts his finger absolutely on the point, which is the difference between images—which is the context of the campaign, as I understand it—and the identification attached to an image of a child, which requires consent. That is the area of balance and the area of debate that we are seeking to square in this.

The We Protect campaign, which the Prime Minister launched and which is chaired very effectively by my noble friend Lady Shields, is about self-regulation. It announced a major breakthrough just before Christmas about internet service providers seeking to remove child abuse images from the internet, identify abusers and ensure that they are brought to justice.

My Lords, given that three-quarters of the public believe that the media should protect children by pixilating or blurring their faces, does the Minister agree that more can and should be done to protect children’s privacy?

I acknowledge the work which the noble Baroness has done and her personal experience in this area, which I am aware of and which, obviously, we all understand. In the case of the protection of privacy, everybody—certainly every parent—understands the lengths to which we are all prepared to go to protect our children and our children’s safety. The question is about weighing the balance between that right to privacy and the right and privilege of free speech and freedom of the press, which is an underscored part of our democracy.

My Lords, the Minister has said that free speech is somehow undermined by publishing an identifiable child’s image. How is it undermined?

I did not say that it was undermined. With respect to the noble Lord, what I actually said was that there is a balance, in a free society, between being able to produce and publish images and identifying those images—in other words between the human rights aspects of Article 6, which deal with protection and privacy, and of Article 8, which deals with free speech. The courts deal with that and the self-regulators deal with that. We can deal with it in a common-sense way without the need to criminalise everyone who produces an image of a child.