CHILDREN'S COMMISSIONER AGAINST NORTH & SOUTHThe Children’s Commissioner, Dr Russell Wills, complained to the Press Council about the cover of North & South’s August 2011 edition, stating that the photograph of a very young baby being held upside down, and in distress, contravened New Zealand’s obligations towards children, as set out in the United Nations Convention of the Rights of the Child (UNCROC), a convention to which New Zealand is a signatory.
The complaint is not upheld.
The magazine cover showed a very young naked baby being held by its feet, upside down and crying. Over the baby’s body was a hot pink banner – MIDWIVES; printed on the baby’s body was “bungled deliveries and the myth of ‘natural childbirth’.”
The Children’s Commissioner complained that the image of the baby struck him as “cruel, exploitative and contrary to her rights under the Convention”.
He quoted the International Federation of Journalists’ guidelines for reporting of children in the media: “The way in which media represents children can influence decisions taken on their behalf and how the rest of society regards them”.
The commissioner believed that the image does not represent the values New Zealanders have towards children. The image is degrading and exploitative.
The commissioner wrote to the editor of North & South, complaining that the photograph appeared to have been staged in a photographic studio, and that the child’s interests could not have been considered in the taking of such a photograph; the act of holding her upside down in a distressed state for a photograph was cruel, exploitative and contrary to her rights.
He understood that the image was licensed from Getty Images and asked for information about how the photograph was produced and whether consideration of the circumstances under which the photograph had been produced had been considered by the North & South editorial team.
In extending his complaint to the Press Council, and in responding to the editor’s response, the commissioner stated that he believed the cover of North & South breached the rights of the child as set out in UNCROC.
He expanded information on UNCROC. UNCROC is an international child rights treaty that has been agreed to by 192 countries of the world, including New Zealand; it sets out fundamental rights of every child, and that the best interests of the child should be a primary consideration in decisions made affecting the child. He believed that photographing a naked distressed child and then using that image on the cover of a magazine is not in the best interests of that child.
Consent from the parents was not relevant, the commissioner said. The publication had a responsibility to act with respect for children, regardless of whether parental consent was gained or not.
He maintained that the image was degrading and exploitative, and that his complaint was fundamentally about the rights of a child to be portrayed with respect and dignity.
The commissioner’s final statement in his second letter to the Press Council concluded: “All children deserve to be portrayed in the media with respect and dignity. The image achieves the opposite of this”.
The Magazine’s Response:
In her response to the initial complaint to the magazine, the editor of North & South provided the commissioner with the Editorial Policy and Principles of Getty Images Inc, a Seattle-based stock photo agency.
In essence, these policies and principles state that Getty Images Inc is an organisation driven by integrity, an individual’s right to privacy, and maintaining a balance between that right and the obligation to cover a story.
The editor of North & South pointed out to the commissioner that he had made no mention of the story which the cover highlighted; the cover was a bold move to draw readers into a feature that raises real concerns about the state of New Zealand’s maternity services; and that a recent report from the Perinatal and Maternal Mortality Review Committee had found that 98 newborn babies – 14% of the 720 who died in 2009 – might have been saved with earlier or better help.
She stated that North & South is a responsible publication with a commitment to well-researched journalism. It would never have published an image that was “cruel and exploitative”. No-one at ACP, including the publisher, had raised concerns about the image.
In response to the complaint to the Press Council, the editor again outlined how the image was ethically obtained with the consent of the baby’s parents, that the baby on the cover was not identifiable, her genitalia were not displayed, holding a new-born baby upside down is not an act of abuse, but a frequent act by a parent, and that no breach of Press Council principles had occurred with the use of the image on the cover.
She was surprised that the commissioner, empowered to advocate for the health of children, had focussed his concerns on the image of a well-cared for child but ignored the key issues related to infant health raised in the article.
The editor included a letter from a retired associate professor of neonatal paediatrics who noted that it had been common for babies to be held that way after birth. He was not aware of babies having come to any harm from this. He found nothing distasteful with the image.
Discussion and Decision
This complaint has again raised issues on the treatment of children and young people in the media. On the one hand, there are moral and legal reasons for ensuring the rights of children are respected and adhered to. On the other hand, images of children affected by famine, or abuse, or war or poor medical treatment can add depth to a story, and focus attention on situations and practices which can be harmful and damaging to a child or children.
The Children’s Commissioner, in this complaint, has highlighted the need for the highest ethical standards to be used in deciding to use images of children in articles or stories.
The Press Council agrees with the commissioner that the parents’ consent is not a determinant factor in this case. It is possible parents may give consent to actions that are not in the best interest of the child.
The issue is whether there has been harm to this baby from the actions, and the Council takes the view that there has not. The Council is reassured in its view by the comments from the retired neonatal paediatrician. Babies and children are often dangled upside down by their parents without this causing harm. The image was not degrading or exploitative. The baby’s vulnerability was depicted, just as their vulnerability to others’ decision-making was explored in the article.
This image was strong, but it needed to be in order to draw attention to the very real issues described in the article inside the magazine.
The Council finds no breach of Principles 3 and 10
The complaint is not upheld.
Press Council members considering this complaint were Barry Paterson, Pip Bruce Ferguson, Kate Coughlan, Sandy Gill, Penny Harding, Keith Lees, Clive Lind, John Roughan, Lynn Scott and Stephen Stewart.