Ross Clark

Where should the line be drawn over the famous Kim Phuc photograph?

Where should the line be drawn over the famous Kim Phuc photograph?
Text settings

Can you imagine, in the wake of a terror attack in London, a tabloid, or any other kind of media outlet, publishing a photograph of a naked and distressed child caught up in the melee? It isn’t hard to answer the question. Of course they wouldn’t publish it. It would break every rule in the book.

It is bizarre, then, to see Facebook accused of censorship for coming to exactly the same conclusion: that it wasn’t right to carry an image of naked and distressed child. It is even weirder to see Facebook attacked from a corner – the Guardian – which would normally be among the first to damn tabloid intrusion.

The difference is that the photograph in question was not taken in London and was not taken in the recent past. It was taken in Vietnam in 1972 and shows nine-year-old Kim Phuc running down a road in pain having torn off her clothes after a napalm attack by South Vietnamese forces. You have no doubt seen the image a hundred times, partly as a result of it winning its photographer, Nick Ut, the 1973 Pulitzer Prize. This week, a Norwegian journalist, Tom Egland, included it in a series of photos, posted on Facebook, which he contended had ‘changed the course of warfare’. Facebook promptly deleted it, drawing the ire of Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten and Prime Minister Erna Solberg, not previously known for impassioned interventions on the international stage, who demanded that Facebook change its policy.

I really don’t know where the line should be drawn over the Kim Phuc photograph. I have always felt uncomfortable about it, but then that is the point: we are supposed to feel that way. But there are several inconsistencies in attitude to point out. It isn’t just a question of attitudes changing over time: I am quite sure that Associated Press, which made the decision to publish Ut’s photograph in 1972, would not have made the same decision had it been an American child running down an American street. It was allowed to be distributed because Kim Phuc was in a faraway, less-developed and war-torn country. There was little chance of her parents complaining.

But what really strikes me is how it is still considered acceptable to print the Kim Phuc image when our newspapers now brim with images of children, even fully-clothed in ordinary situations, with pixelated faces. A Martian trying to work out what life was like on Earth from a contemporary newspaper would come to the conclusion that Earthlings are born with strange, featureless faces and only develop eyes, noses and mouths when they are much older.

IPSO’s editors’ code of practice states this: 'It is unacceptable to photograph individuals, without their consent, in public or private places where there is a reasonable expectation of privacy.' On top of this comes the fear of celebrities’ lawyers, who have extracted large sums from the identification of their clients’ children. The result is a massive over-reaction to intrusion into privacy. A great number of classic 20th century photographs, from children playing in muck heaps in the Gorbals to the famous ‘toffs and toughs’ photograph of five boys outside Lord Cricket Ground during the Eton-Harrow match in 1937, could not now be published. Worse, their photographers would run the risk of finding themselves at the centre of police investigations just for pointing a camera at children without permission.

Facebook’s ‘offence’ is to try to be consistent: it has tried to apply the same rules to a photograph taken in the 1970s as it would to one taken now. I would be quite happy never to see the Kim Phuc image again – it would be ridiculous to publish it with her face or parts of her anatomy pixelated. But the slide into censorship, and self-censorship, of photographs of fully-clothed children in ordinary life deserves to tackled.

It ought also to be pointed out that Kim Phuc happily survived her napalm ordeal – albeit with severe and lifelong scarring. Two of her cousins did not. Phuc lived because Ut and his colleagues, after taking their photographs, took her to hospital where, although she was at first expected to die, spent 16 months recovering. For her, the presence of newsphotographers was a happy accident, however much the result invaded her privacy.