Which is more important — a pupil’s right to privacy, or the public interest in education? Michael Segal examines a case where a city council sought an injunction against a television documentary in which its pupils were badly portrayed

In Leeds City Council and Others v Channel 4 TV Corp. [2007] 1 FLR 678, Channel 4 had made a documentary about three state schools. Pupils said privacy was breached and applied for an injunction to prevent the film being shown.

The judge described the film as ‘shocking’. It gave him the impression that a significant proportion of the pupils, through their own misbehaviour, were not being properly educated, and that those who did want to learn were being denied a proper education because of the uncontrolled misbehaviour of some.

The film was made covertly by a woman who was working as a supply teacher. The pupils’ faces were obscured.

What did the film show?

The film was disturbing. First, discipline had broken down, in school corridors and classrooms, where teaching was almost impossible because of disruption by pupils.

Some were defiantly using their mobile phones to talk or send messages during class; some were fighting; some were running around and jumping from desk to desk; and some were grossly offensive. In one scene, a pupil told a teacher to ‘F*** off’. In others, pupils left the class when they pleased, or arrived late.

Misrepresentation to Ofsted
Second, the film showed what appeared to be deliberate misrepresentation by one school, with the complicity of senior staff, during an Ofsted inspection. The staff alleged that proper teaching materials were never available, but had been brought in for the inspection, during which the worst offenders in the school were deliberately sent on extra-curricular activities.

Demoralised staff
Third, the film showed, at all three schools, the utter demoralisation of the teaching staff, who appeared to have lost the will either to maintain discipline or to teach, doing little more than going through the motions.

Pupils’ objections

Two pupils objected to the showing of the film, on the basis that they had been filmed covertly, in breach of their rights to privacy, protected by Article 8 of the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms 1950.

Article 8 provides that everyone has the right to respect for their private and family life, home and correspondence.

Balancing rights

The judge said that he had to balance the various rights arising out of the European Convention. There were not only the rights of the two pupils, but also the rights of the other children, whose education was being frustrated.

Then there were Channel 4’s Article 10 rights. Article 10 provides that everyone has the right to freedom of expression, which includes freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority.

On the one hand children, when they go to school, have a reasonable expectation that they will not be filmed surreptitiously or spied upon, let alone faced with the prospect of the film being broadcast on national television.

If they are shown in an embarrassing or humiliating way, then those are important rights and interests protected by Article 8, even if, because of the obscuring of their identities, they are going to be identified only by those who are close to them, and therefore will not be exposed to public humiliation.

Public interest
On the other hand there were important and weighty factors that had to be taken into account. The film raised issues of public interest, which ought to be of concern to the public, local authorities, and to parents. It also threw an almost lurid and deeply worrying light on the current condition of the state school system.

The decision

This was a serious documentary seeking to bring to public attention matters that of concern to many. Balancing the various convention rights, the judge considered that the case came down in favour of Channel 4.

Channel 4 could bring the issues to public attention only by covert methods. A school that was prepared to deceive Ofsted was hardly going to allow itself to be filmed by a commercial broadcaster. A request for permission to film, even if granted, would have led to a very different film. The judge refused the injunction.

Michael Segal is a district judge in the family division of the High Court