Hannah Weller, wife of the musician Paul Weller, is campaigning to criminalise the publication of unpixelated photos of children without parental consent. Her organisation, Protect: The Campaign for Children’s Privacy, seeks to change the law so that photographers and journalists would not be able to harass and photograph children involved in any news story and publicise their identity on a national level.
The campaign developed from an incident that occurred in October 2012. Hannah and Paul Weller were in Los Angeles with three of their children when a Mail Online photographer followed them, refused to leave and published seven photos on the site from the afternoon. The accompanying article also falsely referred to Paul Weller’s sixteen year-old daughter as his wife. The Wellers brought legal action against the website and won a High Court ruling in the case Weller vs. Associated Newspapers Limited (2014).
Hannah Weller has continued to campaign, however, ‘to afford the full protection of the law to all children, regardless of their parents’ profession or their family circumstances.’ The legal victory only ensured that the Mail Online could not do the same thing again to those children who were with them when the incident happened. The aim of the campaign is to give all children that same assurance from any press organisation.
The campaign has gained the support of several Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs, most notably the Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, and also has strong support among the public. A ComRes survey that interviewed a sample of 2,024 British adults found that 67% agreed with criminalisation to protect children’s privacy, while 77% believed that it should not be necessary to take legal action to protect children’s privacy and 79% believed media outlets should not publish photographs of children without permission from their parents.
Associated Newspapers Limited are currently appealing the High Court decision. Several criticisms and concerns have also been raised with the campaign for the impact it could have on press freedom. Tim Dawson, vice president of the National Union of Journalists, wrote that it could have ‘chilling results’ and called it a celebrity reaction of ‘seeking a universal solution on the basis of a single unpleasant experience.’
On the other hand, Hannah Weller has frequently pointed out that anyone can be thrust into the attention of the media unexpectedly for their involvement in a news story, giving the examples of ‘the McCanns, the Dowlers or the Lawrences’. The campaign’s proposed legislation also contains ‘a common sense approach to enforcement’, where photos clearly in the public interest such as at war zones, crowd shots or public events and photos children happen to feature in the background of would not constitute an offence.
Part of the legislation the campaign proposes also already exists as a guideline in the Press Complaints Commission’s Editor’s Code of Practice, however it is frequently ignored by press editors. The NSPCC has issued guidelines stating ‘the use of photos on websites and in other publications poses direct and indirect risks to children and young people’, specifically referring to emotional damage, the potential for images to be used in the creation of images of child abuse, and identifying children of rich or famous parents making them vulnerable to kidnap attempts or other crimes.