The publication of images of grief that have been captured by photographers and video cameramen is, naturally, a very delicate matter.
We see it most often in reports of funerals, which are, of course, an important community event in Northern Ireland, very often characterised by the participation of large numbers of members of the public.
On Monday, December 12, the Belfast Telegraph published an image of Northern Ireland Enterprise Minister Arlene Foster in tears at the funeral of her father in Co Fermanagh.
The photo appeared on the front page (as a close-up) and on page 8 of the morning edition, and on page 8 only of our evening editions. Should the image have been published at all?
Three complaints, or adverse comments, that I am aware of have been made directly to this newspaper, although I’m also aware that a larger number have communicated their distaste to other people.
William Mulligan wrote by e-mail to the Editor to describe the front-page photo as “quite appalling”.
He added: “Has your newspaper sunk to the level of the gutter Press by invading the privacy of one so obviously distressed whilst mourning the loss of a loved-one?
“. . . Arlene may be a public figure, but she deserves the respect and decency that the rest of us take for granted at such a time.”
Another reader said publication on both the front and inside pages was “an appalling invasion of privacy and in extremely poor taste”.
The Editors’ Code of Practice takes these matters seriously. Clause 5 of the code, under the heading ‘Intrusion into grief or shock’, instructs editors: “In cases involving personal grief, or shock, enquiries and approaches must be made with sympathy and discretion and publication handled sensitively.”
I do not believe that the Press Complaints Commission would conclude in this case that the images were used in a sufficiently insensitive manner as to constitute a breach of the code.
The Editor of the Belfast Telegraph, Mike Gilson, says that, to him, the photograph was a moving representation of the depths of a daughter’s love for a father and that was why he chose to use it.
However, he says he will keep this matter under continual review and judge each case on an individual basis.
As for me, I would defend the right — indeed, the necessity — of the media to use images of grief, sensitively handled and in the correct context.
However, the front page close-up of Mrs Foster, in particular, was, to me, a step across the line.