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How far should newspapers go in publishing dramatic photographs?
11:55am Monday 20th February 2012 in From The Editor's Chair
How far should newspapers go in publishing photographs of people at the centre of dramatic news stories? Editor Peter Barron reflects on a controversial Press Complaints Commission ruling against The Northern Echo.
ON July 5 last year, The Northern Echo published a photograph showing the culmination of a 90- minute search by the emergency services for the pilot of a glider that crashed in North Yorkshire.
The picture was sent to us by the Cleveland Search and Rescue team, which had been involved in the emergency operation.
It showed the unnamed pilot, sitting upright against his crashed glider in a field at Appleton Wiske, near Northallerton, being treated for his injuries.
There were no obvious signs of distress and he was not covered in blood. Before publishing the photograph, we made inquiries with the police and discovered that the man’s injuries were serious, but not life-threatening.
Seven months on, the newspaper industry watchdog, the Press Complaints Commission (PCC), has upheld a complaint by the pilot’s wife against The Northern Echo for publishing the photograph.
In rejecting a claim that The Northern Echo had failed to show respect for the pilot’s privacy, the PCC took into account that the man had agreed that film taken at the scene by a BBC cameraman could be used in a television programme.
Public interest: 911 rescuers carry a man from the ruins of the Twin Towers
However, the photographer from the Cleveland Search and Rescue team had not sought the injured man’s consent and a further complaint was upheld because The Northern Echo had not shown enough sensitivity in publishing the photograph.
Clause 5 of the Editors’ Code of Practice states that publication must be “handled sensitively”
at times of grief or shock.
In its adjudication, the PCC states: “There was a difficult balance to strike here, as the Commission had strong regard for the important role of newspapers in informing their readers about significant events in the public interest.
“This had clearly been the intention of the newspaper, which was reporting on a matter of clear relevance to its readers. Nonetheless, the Commission was not persuaded that the publication of a revealing photograph of a person receiving medical treatment, published so soon after the accident without consent, could be said to be reasonably sensitive.”
The Northern Echo is a responsible newspaper which holds its hands up to its errors and abides by the PCC Code of Practice. As required, the full adjudication was published prominently in the paper last week.
However, I feel this is a controversial and, in my view, questionable ruling. It not only has major implications for news organisations reporting breaking news stories, but rescue organisations which rely on public goodwill and charity.
Public interest: Huynh Cong Ut's shocking Vietnam picture from 1972 after a napalm bomb is dropped on a village
Secretary of the Cleveland Search and Rescue Team Pete Mounsey, who supplied the picture, said: “Supplying pictures to the media is something we’ve done for more than 20 years and this is the first time it has ever been the subject of a complaint. We do it because it promotes our work and, as a charity, we need to keep ourselves in the public eye. It also helps news organisations do their jobs.”
The Northern Echo had no way of contacting the pilot and, to this day, we have received no direct contact from him or his family, complaining about our actions.
He was unidentified and not a local man. It is true that the photographer, from the search and rescue team, could have sought his consent, but that was not in our control.
We took care to check that his injuries were not life-threatening. If they had been, the picture would certainly not have been published.
We could have masked the man’s face and, in the light of this ruling from the PCC, perhaps that is what editors will now have to do.
The big question is: where do we draw the line in photographing news events?
One of the most famous news pictures of the last century, above, was taken by Huynh Cong Ut, who won the Pulitzer Prize in 1973 for his Associated Press photograph of a naked young girl running from the scene of a napalm attack by the South Vietnamese Air Force.
OK, it is an extreme example, and no one would seriously suggest it should not have been published, or the girl’s consent should have been sought, or her face masked. Or would they?
The scale of an event is clearly a factor.
Shocking images of the victims of September 11 and the London bombings in 2005 were published worldwide and accepted as part of legitimate media coverage.
So where is that incredibly difficult line to be drawn? Last September, The Northern Echo published pictures of students injured after a double-decker bus crashed into a low bridge in Darlington. The images were more graphic than the picture of the glider pilot, but attracted neither complaint nor censure.
There are such pictures in newspapers every day – road accident scenes, fire emergencies, train crashes, lifeboat call-outs, helicopter rescues.
The Hartlepool Mail’s excellent photographer Tom Collins recently won the North-East Photograph of the Year Award for a superb picture of a traumatised teenager being rescued by lifeboat volunteers.
Tom happens to be a lifeboat volunteer himself so he was able to subsequently get the teenager’s permission to publish the photograph.
But in practice, how often would that happen within the timescale required to ensure that fresh news doesn’t become old news?
In the light of the Leveson Inquiry into phone hacking, the Press Complaints Commission is under pressure like never before. It has an undeniably difficult job to perform, but the commissioners have months to come to a conclusion, while editors often have just minutes.
We live in an age of 24-hour news, with mobile phone technology turning millions of people into on-the-spot photographers, and with Twitter, Facebook and YouTube enabling instant publishing.
Knowing where to draw the line will only become more difficult.