School management: Watchdogs waiting to bite

22nd November 1996 at 00:00
A Hampshire school recently complained to the Press Complaints Commission that a reporter from the The News in Portsmouth had approached pupils, contrary to the commission's code of conduct, after an allegation that a teacher at the school had taken drugs. The commission found the code had been breached but did not censure the paper.

A school on the receiving end of some unwelcome or unfair publicity might therefore reasonably conclude that the code of conduct sucks. And if it is useless in an incident involving a paper whose editor is a member of the commission, what hope is there of it curbing the kind of feeding frenzy recently seen at The Ridings and Manton schools, where the code seems to have been widely flouted?

Having experienced the code from both ends, however, that is not quite the view I would take. The onus should be on newspapers to act and report responsibly. But, as with any such code, it is only likely to be truly effective if it is known and used.

Like some other admirable ideas, the section of the PCC code which sets out to protect children seems not so much to have been tried and found wanting as to have never really been tried, largely because it is not sufficiently known.

The part most relevant to schools may be clause 12: "(i) Journalists should not normally interview or photograph children under the age of 16 on subjects involving the personal welfare of the child or any other child,in the absence of or without the consent of a parent or other adult who is responsible for the children. (ii) Children should not be approached or photographed at school without the permission of the school authorities."

As a chairman of governors, I recently had to rely on this when our local paper published some rather unflattering things about the standards of our school meals. To garnish a national report on children's nutrition with local delicacies, it had approached some of our pupils, at random in the street, and extracted some suitably lurid - and untrue - descriptions of chocolate and chips school lunches.

It was not difficult to extract a printed correction and apology by citing the relevant clause. The paper concerned even advertises its adherence to the PCC code.

You could argue, of course, that the damage was done and could not be undone by a mere apology (you could argue that the original story endeared the school to some potential customers).

The more important effect, however, is to have ensured that the paper will be more cautious next time it deals not just with our school, but with any copy out of the mouths of children.

The Portsmouth News story was certainly reported in full ("No censure after The News breaches code") in the journalists' weekly Press Gazette. So too were allegations that the BBC's Panorama programme contributed to the closure of The Ridings. And the belated recognition of a local Halifax newspaper editor that his paper had probably breached clause 12 may well have caused some of his colleagues to dust off their own copies of the code. The PCC itself is expected to be mailing copies to all journalists shortly.

A headteacher's complaint involving The TES to the PCC which landed on my desk some time ago certainly had some impact. A freelance photographer was alleged to have set up a picture for the paper of boys behaving badly.

The TES was cleared - a complaint had been made about the photographer at the time and we had declined to use (or pay for) the pictures.

But the incident raised the profile of the code, which was promptly distributed to all TES journalists. It also brought home the fact that previously the mere existence of a code had not in itself ensured compliance. Realistically, it has to make its existence felt, not least by some expectation that it will be invoked.

This does not only apply to journalism. As a parent of children with special needs, I have found several instances where the local authority had simply never put into place things it was statutorily required to do, both before and after the special educational needs code of practice came into effect. The education officers concerned often seemed unaware of these obligations.

The PCC code and the broadcasters' equivalent may not be perfect. But even if they were, they would still require complainants who knew about and used them to make them work.

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