A photograph that gave Conservative leader David Cameron the sort of publicity he did not want also raised some important legal issues.
Cameron visited Wythenshaw, Manchester, in February last year to talk about gun culture. While he was there, Ryan Florence, then 17, was photographed cocking his fingers in the sign of a pistol behind Cameron’s back.
The fact that Florence was wearing a black hoodie rubbed salt in the wound for Cameron after his ‘hug a hoodie’speech the year before.
The photo was published and broadcast worldwide – mostly with Florence’s face unpixelated.
And many editors also risked breaching the Children and Young Person’s Act 1933 by mentioning that Florence had previously been sent to custody three times by youth courts for multiple offences, including burglary, street robbery, stealing cars and
breaching parole conditions. By coincidence, Florence was back before Manchester City Youth Court two weeks after his photo-‘shoot’with Cameron. This time he was accused of three counts of burglary and one of motor vehicle interference.
The hearing lasted two days, and frustrated editors were not allowed to identify him on day one. Much as everyone wanted to run the ‘Cameron hoodie boy back in court’story, they could not. So the photograph that had been used across the country two weeks earlier was suddenly off limits.
The situation changed again, though, the next day. After convicting Florence and sending him to a Young Offenders Institution for 18 months, the magistrates lifted the identity restrictions in the public interest.
So the boy who had been anonymous the previous day shot back to national recognition again. His famous gun-salute photo was back on the front pages – with the court story.
The saga illustrated how a photograph that is safe one day can be dangerous the next. And web editors in particular need to make sure they keep abreast with events as they unfold.
A similar situation occurred in 1999, when two 10-year-old girls were abducted in Hastings. Their photos received massive publicity as the police tried to find them.
Four days later, they were discovered by police, locked in a man’s flat. The girls’ parents were so grateful for the media’s help in tracing them that they agreed to do a photocall with the girls on Hastings beach.
But there was a problem. The abductor, Alan Hopkinson, 45, had sexually abused the girls – which meant they could not be identified. So the media had to make do with long-range shots showing the backs of the families walking along the sea front.
This was another example of how the legal status of a photo can change within a matter of hours. The same thing happened when the image of a 12-year-old Manchester girl was broadcast worldwide three years ago when she went missing with a man who she met in an internet chatroom.
The photo vanished the moment she was discovered and found to be the victim of a sexual offence.
The same can happen when the media use a photograph of a wanted man – but then have to stop using it as soon as he is arrested, in case identity is an issue at his trial, or he has to take part in an identity parade.
Liaison between news editors and web editors is critical on occasions like this. There have been several occasions when papers’ printed versions have stopped using a photo – but the image has still been used online because no-one thought to tell the web editor to remove it. Some news websites do not carry crime stories or court copy because of the risks.
One paper, which shall remain nameless, had to leave a photo of a wanted man on its website for two weeks after the man had been charged – because the web editor had gone on holiday. He was the only one who knew the access codes to the site, and he could not be contacted.
That was in the very early days of newspaper websites, and hopefully would never happen now. But these examples show how careful editors have to be in making sure their websites keep abreast of cases where the risk level of using a photograph can go from safe to dangerous so quickly.
Cleland Thom is legal adviser to the Manchester Evening News, MEN Media, Trader Media Group, Essex Independent Newspapers, and the Local Radio Company. He has trained more than 700 journalists in media law over the past six years.