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[ Update: 16/12/07 The Australian Press Council has upheld a limited right to privacy for children, and ruled that "The Australian" should not have published the name of a girl who got pregnant and had an abortion when she was twelve (Adjudication 1375). Since that's the case, this ruling should apply to the names in the web version of the stories about her and the two other children (whose names I think should also not have been given, although the APC adjudication is silent about them). "The Australian"'s response to the ruling (via Nick Cater 13/12/07)) does not say what they will do to correct the problem that the names are now widely available on the web. On 13/12/07 I e-mailed "The Australian" and Nick Cater (who represented the newspaper at the hearing) asking for them to remove the names of the three under-age children from the web versions of all the articles, the editorials and Simon Kearney's response, as well as any photographs, and to ask Google to remove the earlier versions of the stories from the Google cache [which means that surfers would only get the later version without the identifications]. Only by doing that will the children's right to privacy be maintained. As of today (16/12/07), "The Australian" has not responded, and still has not removed the names of the children from the web versions of the stories. ]

If your 12 year old daughter was pregnant, and the person who caused it was charged, she couldn't be identified in a newspaper. But if no one was charged, then watch out! The Australian and the relevant Minister, Mal Brough, think it's fine to publish her name and photograph. Worldwide, on the web, and in her home town.

And if your community council chief executive says he doesn't see a problem with it, nor does The Australian.

One small caveat - someone has to give permission. But how do you get permission when the mother doesn't want to talk? Ask her aunt. And, just by the by, they can ask her permission in fluent standard English - so what if she speaks Pintupi and her English isn't very good. No need to ask if she needs an interpreter because hey a family member will do.

Linguists have written for yonks about gratuitious concurrence - when 'yes' doesn't mean 'yes I agree', but rather 'yes I am listening' or 'yes I am being polite'. Ethics committees have also agonised over informed consent. I've tried for many years to explain informed consent to Indigenous people I work with, in several languages, and I know I often don't do a good job. It's hard, it could get in the way of getting a great story, and so journalists might be tempted to take 'yes' as informed consent. That's why we need laws to protect children.

Ironically, one article the Australian published on Media Watch's taking up of this case was under a photograph of a 47 year old Aboriginal man who had a child sex charge against the late Senator Collins, The man's face was pixillated out, and his name omitted. Why? Probably because the man knows the effect that this kind of information could have on his life.

As a country, we have laws about the publication of children's names in connection with crimes, because we recognise that the effect of publishing their names can be very damaging. We recognise that not all parents may realise this, and so children are protected by more than just whether their parents give permission, they are protected by the law.

Clearly it is a bad thing for young children to be getting pregnant. Clearly it is a good thing to report the social and economic conditions that lead to this. Silence prolongs the suffering, but silence does NOT mean identifying a particular child. The rights of the individual child must come first. To sacrifice the rights of one child for the greater good of drawing attention to general bad conditions is only acceptable if there's no other way. And in this case there's absolutely no need to identify the child to make the point. Goodness, they could have pixillated her face....

The Australian is running hard on this, as the number of articles suggests [1]. They ran hard against permits. While I can see the point of changing the permit system to allow journalists free access, they support the Government's approach of allowing free access for anyone into Aboriginal communities. They have tried to convince us that NOT allowing people the right to block people coming into their communities PROTECTS children from the grog-runners, ganja-dealers, ripoff artists.

Now Aboriginal people spend much of their lives more publicly than their non-Aboriginal counterparts - sleeping in their front yards in the heat, say. If newspapers want free access to Aboriginal communities, then they must act responsibly in taking photographs, and respecting people's privacy. As it is, people have complained of photographers standing with zoom lenses on public land, photographing Aboriginal people's backyards in town camps.

I don't think we should grant newspapers photographic James Bond licences - the right to shoot when they like, where they like, who they like ...

If you think Aboriginal children have a right to privacy like other Australian children, and that there should be constraints on how journalists can photograph and publicise their photographs, then... write to The Australian or ... complaints@presscouncil.org.au.

NOTE: I out myself as having complained to the Press Council about the original story, after getting no response from The Australian. Here's hoping for a better outcome than Frances Killaly had on the use of random pictures of Aboriginal children to illustrate stories of sexual abuse.

Update: The Press Council is revisiting the concern about the use of pictures. I have also removed hyperlinks to the stories in "The Australian" here because they exacerbate the problem.

[1]ABC bid to attack story on two pregnant girls, Ashleigh Wilson 6/10/07
Editorial "Silence prolongs the suffering" 8/10/07
Media: Brough defends girl mum report, Patricia Karvelas and Ashleigh Wilson | October 09, 2007


The ABC mediawatch story last night on this topic took your tack on this. See transcript on ABC website for details.

"The Australian" has hit back at Media Watch over its excellent piece. Despite the fact that their behaviour is the subject of a Press Council complaint, they contemptuously name the two girls yet again - in an editorial (Thursday 18/10/07), and they defend themselves in an article in the Media section. Media Watch has responded here in Crikey. There've been 5 pieces so far in "The Australian" defending their action in naming the children. It's as if they want to make their defence to the Press Council really really public. I don't know what their readers think about it - haven't seen any letters one way or the other in the Letters section.

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