In early February, a picture of a young mother climbing with her toddler caused a media storm. Ed Douglas talks to Menna Pritchard about what it's like to live through a tabloid whirlwind, the double standards of the press and how mothers doing adventurous things are perceived.
It’s likely you remember the picture: a young woman top-roping on a limestone cliff carrying a child in a backpack. The young woman, Menna Pritchard, is wearing a helmet. The child is not. When it appeared in the Daily Mail, the story of the rock-climbing mum went viral, picked up around the world and attracting thousands of comments from readers.
The Sun summed up the tabloid view with its headline: “Is she off her rocker?” But it was the comments under the stories of outrage that really put the boot in. “If ever there was a kid that needed taking into care, then this is it,” was just one conclusion among scores like it. Pritchard was deemed stupid and selfish, and readers dwelt on the fact she is a single mother with a tattoo, as though these facts were evidence of criminal behaviour.
Those commenting on climbing websites were generally more supportive, although a few doubted the wisdom of climbing with a child in a backpack whatever the circumstances. One comment in particular struck me: “I can’t imagine what it’s like to be burnt at the stake by the media for an innocent act which has been misunderstood by some hack.”
The image was apposite. Menna Pritchard’s experience, it seemed to me, was a form of witch-hunt. She had been dunked in a swampy and ill-informed village pond. Several female journalists have written in recent weeks about their experience of online hate, but Pritchard’s savaging came out of the blue with no network of colleagues around her to share the burden – or much knowledge of how the media works.
So the question is a good one. What is that like?
Pritchard is over the shock when I speak to her, but the experience has clearly been traumatic, affecting not just her but her family and friends. For weeks after the Mail ran its story, she got enquiries from journalists, not just in the UK, but around the world. “The day after it all kicked off,” she says, “a journalist from The Sun turned up at my parents’ house. That’s when it sunk in how serious it was.”
Worse was to follow. Pritchard is studying outdoor education at University of Wales’ Trinity St Davids. While tutors on her course were supportive, she says the dean was concerned about the impact all the negative publicity was having on the college’s reputation. Then she got a letter from social services.
“That was heartbreaking,” she says, “even though they said they weren’t going to do anything. I try my hardest with Ffion and I know she has a wonderful quality of life compared to some kids. But I wasn’t surprised by it. Although I didn’t read many of the comments, there were a lot saying Ffion should be taken away from me, so I suppose social services were only doing their job.”
The criticism she faced was clearly harsh, from journalists and readers. But she knows some climbers thought what she was doing to be risky. Others wondered how the newspapers ended up with her picture in the first place. If you don’t want to be abused, why give your story to a tabloid? Surely she knew what she was getting into, and can’t have any complaints when it backfired?
Pritchard tells a very different story. She had been blogging occasionally for a year about her life as a single mother with a passion for the outdoors, when she got a call from her regional newspaper, the Western Mail. A journalist called Rachael Misstear wanted to do a human-interest story about her adventurous life as a young mother and since sharing that story was the point of her blog, Menna agreed. They talked on the phone and Misstear sent a photographer round to get a portrait of Pritchard with Ffion.
The article ran, and although Pritchard was uncomfortable with some of the melodramatic language used, it was a generally positive piece. It mentioned the photo on her blog of her climbing with Ffion at Gower’s Three Cliffs, but didn’t show it. But within hours, Pritchard discovered the photo had been taken from her blog and used by the Mail Online, copyrighted to an agency called Hook News.
“At the time,” she says, “I didn’t know much about copyright infringement and wasn’t sure whether they were allowed to do that. Now I know better.” Later she got a call from the journalist who had sold the pictures to the Mail, wanting more information. They talked, with her still uncertain about her rights to her own photographs. “He was charming,” she says, “told me he was a dad too, liked wild swimming, that kind of thing.”
Later on – more certain that what had happened to her was wrong – she called him back. This time he was less friendly. “He said that if I didn’t want people to look at my pictures I shouldn’t have put them on my blog.” She also mentioned the issue of copyright infringement and he said that he’d talk to the Mail. Another journalist later offered her £1,000 to tell her side of the story, and when she turned him down, upped the offer to £1,500.
“To be honest, I could have done with the money,” she says, “but that’s not what all this is about.” She’s currently pursuing legal action against those who she says violated her copyright.
Sharp practice aside, Pritchard feels she was portrayed so negatively because she was a woman. “That was definitely part of it. And I think the fact I’m a single mother played a part too. I saw a piece in the Guardian or the Independent recently saying the Daily Mail’s relationship with women is like an abusive husband. They need women and court them but they’re not afraid to turn around and punch them in the face.”
I ask her about the controversial photograph and how it came to be taken. “A group of us had gone down to Three Cliffs for a bit of climbing and a bit of beach.” Ffion had spent the day playing, minded by Pritchard’s friend while she was climbing. At the end of the day, she clipped into a top rope and climbed with Ffion a few feet up a route graded Diff. Since she had the helmet with her from earlier in the day, she wore it. But the climb wasn't for her, it was for her daughter.
“Ffion was laughing and having a great time, although you don’t see that in the photo, and a friend soloing next to me took out his mobile phone for a quick shot.”
No doubt there was a small residual risk in all of this. But as Pritchard points out, there were young children on the beach scrambling around the rocks, exploring the world, taking risks – and their parents aren’t in the dock. The brief climb she did with Ffion was, she says, an exception. Most of the time she is hill walking with her, or at the beach, activities that carry their own risks but not ones that seem to worry the tabloids.
I suspect what caused some of the outrage was the false notion Pritchard had in some way refused to compromise her own needs to meet those of her child. The paraphernalia – the ropes, the harness, and that helmet – suggest someone determined to carry on regardless of her child’s needs, to the extent that she was willing to risk her child’s life. It’s a misinterpretation, but might explain in part why so many readers criticising her were women. It seems many of us have fixed ideas about what a mother should be.
Pritchard seems unusually open as a person, and consequently vulnerable to manipulation. She admits she was naïve. But if she’s bruised, she’s not beaten. She’s back blogging and living the kind of life that brought her to Wales. “Occasionally something new comes up disparaging my personality,” she says. “It’s always hard to read those things.”
Ultimately, Pritchard’s story has very little to do with climbing, and everything to do with a kind of national anxiety about the sorts of families we live in now, an anxiety that finds its most strident voice in the Daily Mail. But if you write a climbing blog or put images online, tweet or go on Facebook you might want to think carefully about what you publish – especially, it seems, if you’re a single mother, with a tattoo. You never know who’s looking.