'Bad children should remain nameless'

15th November 1996 at 00:00
Solicitor Steven Williams has two juvenile clients. One has appeared in court 30 or 40 times on various charges. The other is alleged to have pulled a girl's hair, coughed continuously in class and rattled a baseball bat along the school railings. Which one have you heard of?

The odds are that most people outside Nottinghamshire will know nothing about the first lad. The second is Matthew Wilson, who holds the dubious distinction of being the nation's most notorious schoolboy.

Matthew's misdemeanours pale into insignificance beside those of the other boy. The difference is he can legally be named in the press, with particular impunity since his mother - driven to distraction by doorstepping journalists - agreed to an interview. The identity of the other boy is protected by the full force of the law, and he is known publicly only as the Beast of Shireoaks.

Matthew was twice excluded from Manton Junior School in Worksop, reinstated on appeal, taught alone for six weeks because members of the NASUWT refused to have anything to do with him and finally sparked a strike and closure of the school until his mother found him a place elsewhere.

The saga took place in the full glare of publicity, with reporters staking out the school gates and the family home. According to Mr Williams, who acted for Matthew's mother, Pamela Cliffe, the boy was so terrified by it all that he used to hide under the car, where he was still pursued with long lenses. The tabloids felt unable to name him without adjectives such as "teeny yob" (the Sun) and "unruly pupil" (the Daily Mail).

Mr Williams believes agreement could have been reached earlier if there was a ban on naming children named in disciplinary processes at school. "The mother would have been much more amenable to moving him earlier, but with the publicity she was worried about parents picketing any other school she chose," he said. "This should have been a local dispute."

He believes it was part of an attempt by the NASUWT to boost membership, and the naming of Matthew ensured national publicity.

The Association of Metropolitan Authorities education committee was worried enough about the Manton case to pass unanimously an emergency resolution.

It wants a toughening of journalists' codes of conduct to ensure privacy for children, to regulate the behaviour of journalists around schools and to promote responsible reporting of issues affecting children. Councillor Valerie Shawcross, chair of Croydon's Education Committee, who moved the motion, said: "You get the situation where children are famous for 15 minutes and notorious for the rest of their lives."

The AMA is seeking meetings with the Press Complaints Commission and the Broadcasting Standards Council to discuss its fears. Coincidentally, the PCC has changed the section of the code relating to children but has no plans to tighten up rules on the naming of children who are in trouble with school but not the law.

The code says journalists should not interview or photograph children under the age of 16 on subjects involving the personal welfare of the child without parental consent, and should not be approached at school without the permission of the authorities.

Margaret Morrissey, of the National Confederation of Parent Teacher Associations, is concerned about the effect of naming children at a turbulent period of their lives.

Journalists, too, are uneasy about recent events which have seen Ridings pupils granting lurid interviews with reporters for cash and the whole situation inflamed by the presence of cameras.

Tim Gopsill, editor of the National Union of Journalists' newspaper, the Journalist, said: "It's certainly outside the spirit of the code, if not the letter of the code. Children are being tried by journalists as a matter of course."

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