Media freedom threatens welfare

President of the High Court Family Division Sir Stephen Brown has given important new guidance on the rights of the courts to intervene in media coverage concerning children in care.

He has made it clear that if the media overstep the mark in the way they cover such stories then the courts are in a position to curb their activities.

Barrister David Spicer, acting as assistant head of legal services for Nottingham Council, says Sir Stephen's decision, given after a private hearing in the case of Nottingham City Council v October Films and Channel Four, strengthens the rights of all those responsible for the welfare of children. He says it has implications that go beyond the immediate facts of the case.

The council had sought injunctions to safeguard the interests of children in its care who had been filmed for a Channel 4 documentary on young people in Britain today. In the end, October and Channel 4 gave undertakings, which satisfied the court, to ensure that four of the five young people involved are not identified.

The legal argument centred on whether, in the circumstances of the case, the court had jurisdiction to grant injunctions to safeguard the welfare of the children.

Backing the council's claim, Sir Stephen said that he had received evidence in respect of the way the film-makers had befriended the young people concerned and had sought to develop what had been described as a "trusting relationship" with them.

He was satisfied that those activities were such that they could have an effect on the children's upbringing. And in those circumstances he said he considered a situation had been created which gave the court the right to intervene.

"While preserving the principle of the freedom of the press in a democratic society, it is nevertheless in the public interest that there should be discouragement and prevention of interference with, and exploitation of, vulnerable children by the media and that there should be support for the vital role of caring professionals working in the difficult field of delinquent children who are at risk," he said.

Sir Stephen considered that there appeared to be a complete lack of understanding by October and Channel 4 of the position of Nottingham's Director of Social Services, who had statutory responsibility for young people in his area.

"It appears to me that the problems in this case have principally arisen from the fact that the film company took the deliberate decision not to alert or to inform the social services of their proposed operations," he said.

"They approached these children without parental consent or knowledge and indeed without the knowledge of anybody whose duty was to seek to afford a degree of supervisory assistance to the children. Undoubtedly misunder standings occurred as a result. Their conduct went far be-yond merely observing the children."

He said that in those circumstances he was satisfied that the "inherent jurisdiction" of the court had been properly invoked.

Spicer says: "This particular case happened to hinge on programme makers who were encouraging children to be absent. But it must be of application generally. Such action could equally be taken against those such as stalkers, paedophiles or relatives of vulnerable children."

Spicer also considers that this case has emphasised a major problem in the system, namely the need for organisations such as his council to go to the High Court to protect young people in their care. He believes this is wrong in such a vital welfare area.