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    Thursday, 5 July 2007

    Messenger shot: teacher-journalist suspended for undercover filming

    Some months ago, I commented on the case of Angela Mason who faced a hearing before a committee of the General Teaching Council charged with unacceptable professional conduct. She had admitted taking surreptitious footage in several schools for a Channel Five documentary. Ms Mason has now learned her fate: a one year suspension from teaching (1,2,3,4).

    Mason was to some extent 'hoist by her own petard' as the committee had access to all of the footage shot (para 12). The committee considered that her defence based on the public interest in receiving information on matters of public concern was insufficiently strong to outweigh the purported dereliction of her duty towards the welfare of the children (para 45). It considered that her motivation in entering the classroom - being that of a journalist and not primarily that of a teacher - was relevant to the matter (para 34). She had breached the trust of her employers, colleagues and pupils.

    The Committee also found that Ms Mason had not deliberately or wilfully encouraged the poor behaviour (para 22). Nevertheless, it considered that deficiencies in her teaching and classroom management give a false impression of the realities of behaviour in schools (para 40). This is at once the rejection and rejuvenation of an entrapment argument, and seems (not so) subtly intended to gainsay the strength of the contention conveyed in the programme that disruptive behaviour impacts seriously on learning opportunities. That said, the Committee did not seek to deny the fact of disruptive behaviour or that the teacher's lot is a demanding one. The committee allowed that Mason had not deliberately provoked or allowed bad behaviour, but criticised her for failing to adopt best-practice techniques for controlling pupils.

    Channel Five contended that the committee had given insufficient weight to the wider public interest issues. Certainly, while it sought briefly to distinguish the broadly analogous case of Leeds Council & ors v Channel 4 Television Corp [2005] EWHC 3522 (Fam) in which a public interest defence was successfully deployed, it concluded that the question being asked of it was different to that faced by the court. In the committee's view, a public interest defence could only be successful in this context 'exceptionally' (para 30). Ms Mason's view, echoed on discussion boards: "the GTC has done nothing to help pupils or parents by sanctioning me in this way".


    Anonymous said...

    I have to say that when I watched that programme at the time it was clear that she was an appaling teacher. So in journalistic terms they could not claim public interest in that they were revealing the poor state of school discipline. All it revealed was the poor state of her ability. The whole show was poorly put together with some quite random bits of different schools.
    Charlie Beckett

    Andrew Scott said...

    At first, I remember coming to a similar view: what was it exactly that the programme was intended to demonstrate? the fact that given an opportunity all kids will 'chance their arms', and that if they get away with it first off their misbehaviour will escalate? There's a revelation. That said, some of the behaviour was beyond the pale.

    Thinking more about it though, despite the relative clumsiness of the programme itself, the complexity of the issue came through well. Everyone knows that kids misbehave, but ALSO important is the less-conceded truth not all teachers are good teachers (to put it mildly), and its the combination of the two that causes real harm to the learning experience. A close acquaintance of mine maintains that in five years of maths classes at school she was never taught any maths, having been allocated to a low set where neither teaching nor learning were on the collective agenda. Granted, this wasn't necessarily (at least explicitly) the argument on which the programme was stood up, but its what came through to me. I have (half-baked) views - as does everyone on how to respond to this 'classroom chaos', but they're no doubt for some other blog...

    The wider question is 'to what does/should a public interest defence attach'? Should the important factor be the intention or purpose behind a journalistic course of action (ie defence available to botched jobs of presenting important issues as much as award-winning impact journalism) or should it be available only to high quality output. This is a difficult choice, and where public interest defences have been highly developed and applied by the courts (ie in Reynolds privilege defence to defamation) there is arguably a mixing of the two alternatives (an emphasis on high-quality journalism - taken to mean primarily important issues conveyed in well-written / stood up copy - coupled with a focus on process). Maybe there is no real dichotomy here...

    flylse said...

    judgement on public interest is always a very tricky issue. It is so unambiguous and so controversial, that it has to be put in a specific context and anaylsed on a case-by-case basis.
    I think we could borrow the way Lords judged the Reynolds case in which the Lord Nicholas came up with the concept "responsible journalism". to be responsible journalism, the Lord remind that editors and reports should ask about ten questions to see if their reports really serve the public interest.
    In this case of teacher-journalist, we could ask similar questions to test the ground for public interest:1. does the filming really serving the public interest by truthfully representing the reality?
    2. is it really necessary to covertly film the students?
    Regarding the first question, the supply teacher, according to the professional conduct hearing, the class chaos was resulting from her incompetency in managing the class although she didnot deliberatedly lead to that disorder. and many teachers did much better in managing students behavior. so in this sense, the class chaos filmed failed to do justice to the reality.
    Regarding the second question, the students disorder has not been a secret, as many people have started to discuss the solution to the issue. of course, the filming could lead to more awareness of this issue, but it could not justify its necessity.
    so in this case, the public interest test fails to be passed

    Andrew Scott said...

    The Guardian has published a comment on this tribunal decision by Chris Shaw, the senior programme controller, news and current affairs, at Channel Five. Observations include:

    - "their decision to throw the book at Angie was more about retribution than regulation"
    - "Angie was always more of a whistleblower than an undercover reporter and her treatment by the GTC was, in my view, verging on the vindictive"
    - "I found the disciplinary body itself rather biased".

    Ultimately, the view taken is that the case arose out of a clash of different professional perspectives on what was justified in the public interest.