Media coverage of Roma families raises issues of ethics and privacy
Officials must resist the temptation to pass sensitive and private personal information to journalists
“There is a clear obligation on the part of State officials dealing with sensitive material not to furnish or disclose such information to the media.” Photograph: Bryan O’Brien
The actions of the Garda and Health Service Executive in the removal of two Roma children from their homes has raised very serious issues. It is right that the decision-making process be carefully and independently examined by Children’s Ombudsman.
However, there is a related issue of some significance that also requires scrutiny. The media coverage of the two cases – and indeed the case of the Roma girl in Greece – also warrants examination and raises certain ethical issues.
The publication of images of the children on national television and in the print media raises legal and ethical issues that require an official response from the appropriate agencies in order to establish clarity in practice and law.
My concern is twofold, firstly the issue of privacy and secondly, whether the publication of images of the children was in the public interest.
Some of the coverage of the events treated the families as though they were players in a reality television show.
Our children, like adults, enjoy a right to privacy: it is implied under our Constitution and more explicitly under article 16 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Privacy is also guaranteed under the terms of the European Convention on Human Rights, now incorporated into Irish law.
Moreover, the code of practice of the Press Council has been accepted by the vast majority of our media outlets.
This code explicitly states that respect for rights and privacy must be at all times honoured. Principle 9 of the code states that journalists and editors should have regard to the vulnerability of children and in all dealings with children, should bear in mind the age of the child, whether parental or other adult consent has been obtained for such dealings, the sensitivity of the subject and what circumstances, if any, make the story one of public interest.
In defence of publication, it has been stated that the consent of the children’s parents had been granted.
I make the point that mere consent of parents to publication may not of itself be sufficient to justify publication. In this regard I refer to a case before the Press Council in Norway wherein it was held that the parental consent for the publication of their child’s image was not of itself enough to justify publication.
The second issue is whether and under what circumstances the publication of images of a child is in the public interest.
While the substance of the Roma story was of significant international and national public interest, it is questionable whether publishing images of the victim children was also so justified.
I fail to see what public interest is served by splashing images of innocent children across the news media in a way that not only discloses their identity but places them under spotlight and scrutiny.
A further issue arises which is somewhat curious and which has attracted little comment. These cases were covered in the media as crime reports rather than social affairs or family law issues.
The image of the crime reporter is different to that of a social or family affairs reporter and the close association of some crime reporters with State agencies, while well-known, is not always transparent. There is a clear obligation on the part of State officials dealing with sensitive material not to furnish such information to the media.
Officials must resist the temptation to pass on sensitive personal and private information to journalists. Anybody dealing with children has a clear professional and ethical duty not to disclose such information unless it is clearly in the public interest to do so.
There are serious ethical issues here and it is appropriate that we hear from the relevant authorities, particularly the Children’s Ombudsman and the Press Council, as to whether they consider children’s rights have been well served by the unrestricted publication of child images.
We need to strike a sensitive balance between facilitating open reporting and investigative journalism and protecting an individual’s right to privacy as appropriate to a constitutional democracy.
Charlie Flanagan is a TD for Laois/Offaly and chair of the Fine Gael Parliamentary Party