Young people need to be listened to, not talked at; There is a lot more to the PSNI’s Operation Exposure than the issue of children’s rights, says Phil Scraton

What’s in a name? Operation Exposure is a statement of intent by the PSNI in publishing 21 photographs of young people wanted for questioning as part of their “investigation into sectarian disorder” in Derry.

Mr Justice Treacy established there is an arguable case that publication of a 14-year-old’s photograph had breached his right to privacy. Instructively, in reporting the case, the child could not be identified.

According to the PSNI, exposure is a last resort. Yet as a PSNI internal e-mail suggests, the initiative is more than an exceptional response — it is a “pilot . . . for potential roll-out across the service”.

Using the media as an aid to crime-detection is an effective collaboration. But Operation Exposure has caused concern, especially for those working with children.

It results in an ill-informed, polarised debate. Media sound-bites pit the ‘rights of children’ against the ‘right’ of communities to live in peace. While children are protected by domestic legislation, international conventions and professional protocols, the debate about anonymity and reporting restrictions has a controversial history.

On November 24, 1993 a trial judge at Preston Crown Court told two 11-year-olds, tried for murder in an adult court, that their abduction and killing of a two-year-old toddler was “an act of unparalleled evil and barbarity”. As he passed sentence he revealed their identities.

The inevitable happened. Newspapers published photographs of Robert Thompson and Jon Venables. Tabloid headlines included ‘Born to Murder’ and ‘Freaks of Nature’. It was a defining moment.

Fast forward 11 years and the News of the World names the ‘Youngest thug in Britain’ — the ‘first 11-year-old to have an ASBO’, despite having no convictions.

In this climate of escalating intolerance, European Commissioner Alvaro Gil-Robles argued that such public condemnation not only violated children’s rights, it transformed “the pesky into pariahs”. The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child criticised “negative public attitudes towards children, especially adolescents” within the UK.

Operation Exposure flies in the face of these criticisms. It invokes the principle of public interest while neglecting its duty of care to children. Their safety is compromised by short-term gains. Longer term, it will exacerbate the consequences of deep-rooted alienation.

The PSNI will argue they have ‘risk assessed’ the release of photographs to satisfy human rights obligations — that risks to life, inhuman and degrading treatment, privacy and a fair trial have been balanced against the impact of children’s violent behaviour.

Meanwhile, minimal consideration is given to the emotional impact on children and young people living through the out-workings of conflict and the daily reality of political and economic marginalisation.

Our research has shown that vilification, condemnation and criminalisation creates a climate of rejection in which children and young people use violence against others and themselves.

This is not simply a matter of children’s rights to be negotiated by state institutions. It is a fundamental issue of social, political and economic exclusion where inadequate, essential services fail to meet the complex needs of children’s lives.

Central to a progressive strategy is the inclusion of the voices, experiences and frustrations of children and young people. Only by listening to and accommodating their hopes and aspirations and by including them in all decisions that affect their lives, can a real opportunity be created for community stability.

Originally published in Belfast Telegraph 14/10/10

Copyright 2010 Belfast Telegraph Newspapers Ltd.

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