Burnt at the stake by the media

Posted by Ed Douglas on 19/04/2012
Menna Pritchard

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.



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1) Anonymous User
19/04/2012
The poor woman :(. My heart fully goes out to her, and I say well done for not giving in. The amount of judgement people pass without even being sure of things, or finding out the truth is utterly appauling, and very hurtful. To be so cruel as to say her daughter should have been taken away is harsh and very unjust. I'm sure those mothers have never come close to accidentally harming their children.
2) Anonymous User
19/04/2012
Many thanks for telling the bigger picture. The first I knew about the story was when my Mum called and demanded if I had ever done similar with my girls. I haven't but they have been out climbing at crags since the age of 2 and we continually enjoy adventures with them across a whole range of outdoor activities.
It's a lesson for us all about how far reaching the media can be and that you are no longer dealing just with the person you are talking too but a whole army of baying hounds both in print and online.
3) Anonymous User
19/04/2012
So does this mean that anyone can take a pic off my blog and sell it without my permission?
4) Anonymous User
19/04/2012
Take my hat off to the lady, there is absolutely nothing wrong with what she has done, as for the media, dirty filthy scum dregging parasites.
19/04/2012
The general public considers climbing a dangerous sport whilst those in the know, understand that it is a controlled and very safe activity. People are happy to let their 3 year old go wizzing down a slope on skis, which carries a much higher risk of injury, but see a baby on the back of a woman top roping and all hell breaks loose!
I think its absolute atrocious that social services got in touch... they should be using their resources to investigate real complaints rather than get caught up in a tabloid furor. I think what the article illustrates above is that it is all too easy to attack somebody online, behind the safety of anonymity and without knowing the full story be. I hope this has deterred Menna from talking Ffion to the crag and given the fickleness of the media it has probably been forgotten for the next headline.
6) Anonymous User
19/04/2012
Once again, the British Tabloids display their remarkable talent for flouting rules, regulations and common decency.
7) Anonymous User
19/04/2012
First take a pair of scissors then a copy of the Daily Mail and cut it into 6 inch by 6ins squares & and place by your toilet. The best use for this hysterical right wing rag!
8) Anonymous User
20/04/2012
It is important for mothers and fathers not to loose their identity when they have children. It is good to see a young mother still living a full life in the outdoors and introducing her child to this life. I would have loved to have been introduced to climbing from a younger age! It is just a shame that people who know nothing of the sport or of the person cast so much jugdement. It is nice to see her story told in a balanced light.
9) Anonymous User
23/04/2012
Although it's tough, I'm so glad you took your wee one climbing. Kids need to get out and do more - your wee one is surely not going to sit home and play video games munching on chocolate and crisps. Good on you, and keep going!
10) Anonymous User
24/04/2012
We have to accept that the general public think of our sport as being a dangerous one, even if we know that it is actually one all about the management of risk. Most people climb within their own ability and fix gear to ensure their safety further. It is certainly true that society looks on mothers doing adventurous things very differently to fathers. For those of you with a memory the media storm surrounding the death of Alison Hargreaves on K2 back in the 90's shows the disparity just as clearly. Male climbers and mountaineers don't receive the same treatment. Such stories always sadden me (a male btw) as I actively want and encourage all to try rock climbing and other mountain activities. The benefits are huge to peoples self confidence and self esteem. We all know that the risks we take and efforts we make to minimise these risks. Perhaps the activities of a few who frequently solo hard routes for the danger element should be questioned more?
11) Anonymous User
26/04/2012
Courage Menna. I adopted my daughter as a single mom, and during those long years of vetting by social services my ropes, ice axes etc were stashed at a friend's house - I'm pretty certain they would not have allowed the adoption if they had known the full extent of my mountaineering. Can you imagine what they would have thought? A single mom, taking such risks, tut, tut! Notwithstanding whilst waiting the 3.5 years for the adoption to happen I lived this double life, climbed on Broad Peak, winter climbed in Scotland etc whilst waiting for my child. We now live in the southern French Alps and my daughter, aged 8, climbs with the French Alpine Club adventure school every week. I laughed when someone from the UK said they hoped I was still climbing big mountains: some things are just not possible as a single mom. There are ways to live your love of the mountains as a single mom, but for sure you have to watch your back! Cheers Pippa www.alpsholiday.com
12) Anonymous User
26/04/2012
Courage Menna. I adopted my daughter as a single mom, and during those long years of vetting by social services my ropes, ice axes etc were stashed at a friend's house - I'm pretty certain they would not have allowed the adoption if they had known the full extent of my mountaineering. Can you imagine what they would have thought? A single mom, taking such risks, tut, tut! Notwithstanding whilst waiting the 3.5 years for the adoption to happen I lived this double life, climbed on Broad Peak, winter climbed in Scotland etc whilst waiting for my child. We now live in the southern French Alps and my daughter, aged 8, climbs with the French Alpine Club adventure school every week. I laughed when someone from the UK said they hoped I was still climbing big mountains: some things are just not possible as a single mom. There are ways to live your love of the mountains as a single mom, but for sure you have to watch your back! Cheers Pippa www.alpsholiday.com
13) Anonymous User
18/05/2012
I took my (just) 3 year old climbing on a top rope, in full harness & helmet.He thoroughly enjoyed it and to my mind was safer than when scrambling about on the beach. However when a friend who had been with us mentioned this , as a positive thing, to the regional NSPCC head he was horrified and claimed I should be reported to social services. The conversation had related to over protecting children. He was eventually Placated but this just shows how wrong the public Perception of Climbing can be.
14) Anonymous User
18/05/2012
The public are not stupid but they also tend to be experts on everything, unless it's a recognised scientific or academic discipline. Generally the less they know or have experience of something the more expert it seems to make them. Isn't it just 'common sense' after all and everyone's encouraged to have an opinion.
.
The Press is just there for entertainment and goes after anything they think will cause outrage , often by appealing to this common non-sense & ignorance.
.
I once was involved in an accident and after waking up in the hospital the medical staff said there was a reporter waiting and what would I like to tell them. My reaction , instinctively, was nothing.
The Press just writes for effect ( or 'the facts' as they call it) and you are just the collateral in achieving that effect.
15) Anonymous User
18/05/2012
Kids need to learn how to manage risk, not avoid it altogether. Good on Menna for showing her child the finer things in life. I am a Deputy Head Teacher and much of my time is spent getting past the idea that life should somehow be devoid of risk. How very tedious some people can be.
16) Anonymous User
18/05/2012
I suspect the negative reaction is in part from people who may feel burdened by the care of their own children and who simply can't bear to see a woman taking it in her stride and getting on with life. Many parents turn off their normal lives when they have children and transform themselves into partial beings that revolve entirely around the child. This isn't good for either party. Good on Menna for being real and just getting on with life.
17) Anonymous User
18/05/2012
I have every simpathy for anyone that is dragged though the mire by the press and as a climber myself and outdoor store owner that has taken my own children top roping indoors and outdoors I feel I am qualified to comment and indeed should acknowledge I'm rather thankful no one from the press ever highlighted any of my own mistakes.

However, under no circumstances should a child rock climb without a helment, the fact that other kids were scrambling at the bottom of the cliff without protection does not alleviate the responsibility as the knowledgeable climber that Menna appears to be to take appropriate care of their charge. Secondly I dont believe such a young child is able to assess the risk they are in, giggling and enjoyment is not tantamount to consent or understanding. An older child may well be able to be taught the risks and play a part in the judgement process, but ultimately it is the parent or qualified climber which must decide and take the resposibility whatever the outcome.

It is sad that having made a poor judgement, the press were there to highlight it instead of someone with greater understanding to explain the error. And what of her climbing partner seen belaying in the photo, or indeed the photographer ? These two are complicit and must share responsibility yet dont seem to have been highlighted. It seems to be the case a lot in climbing and mountaineering that sensationalist journalism gains readers at the expense of misery of those involved and has little to do with advancing the sport.

I am pleased that Ffion was unharmed though this should not be taken as proof that zero risk was involved. I do however hope that one day she discovers the joy of climbing for herself one day and gets to decide for herself what risks to take.
18/05/2012
She has been very naive but doesn't deserve the media outcry. I note its the usual bile against the Daily Mail but it was reported online by the BBC and many other media outlets. Shooting the messenger because you don't like the message? It was newsworthy because no baby needs to be taken on a rock climb - its dangerous. What if she turned upside down - by no means unlikely - does the infant tip out? Even if she didn't was the baby carrier designed and rated for taking babies up rock climbs? Of course not, theres no demand and for very good reasons.
19) Anonymous User
18/05/2012
My peripheral involvement with the press ("Carbon copy Death Trek" Sheffield, 1971) and a few other things - tells me that accuracy comes a very poor second to sensationalism for selling papers. Pity the poor social worker; vilified for reacting or not reacting. Can we have a press that is accountable to everyone not just the press council?
20) Anonymous User
19/05/2012
I wonder how many of the people who had somthing negative to say about this lady as a mouther smoke around their kids,drink around their kids and swear around their kids! An image says a thousand words but oftern it depends on the person looking at it as to what those words are! Oftern the things we asume say more about us then about those we unfairly judge! This little one is going to grow up well loved and full of life experances! I would be greatfull to have this lady as my mouther! Stay strong hun!
21) Anonymous User
19/05/2012
There are far more kids placed at risk by parents who smoke, drink to excess, don't use seat belts or let them eat rubbish, than by caring parents taking them climbing! The fact that someone is a single mum doesn't axiomatically make that person a bad parent, either.This is just another media feeding frenzy, and the starting poiint for me would be if it's in the Daily Mail, it's probably a lie.
There was a time when the concept of a managed risk in the company of a caring parent was part of growing up. My parents saw nothing wrong with letting me scramble up the Cobbler when I was ten years old (my mother climbed this in the 1930s in her kilt and brogues), climb up the side of Cheddar Gorge when I was nine or swim two miles across an inlet in the then Yugoslavia when I was thirteen. I'm probably more safety conscious now, but I never would have started my (fifty year) obsession with mountains without parents who were willing to expose me to the occasional scary moment.
22) Anonymous User
19/05/2012
Very interesting article. It shows - again - that you should never wholly believe a story in the media, especially in a tabloid newspaper or website.
23) Anonymous User
20/05/2012
What do you expect from a bunch of people who can't get a proper degree. Media Studies?? Or am I just writing this without any actual knowledge of what is really going on!.
24) Anonymous User
20/05/2012
Thanks for telling us a bit more about the bigger picture. My mum showed me that article and seemed concerned in case I was tempted to do the same with my own 15 month old daughter! As a keen climber, I'm taking a bit of a break at the moment as my daughter is too small (and it's just too complicated!) to take her along. We have very limited childcare options so I'm happy to wait until she's old enough to tie on herself :-) I do miss climbing dreadfully but take my daughter out walking in a child carrier rucksack as often as I can to get her used to, and enthusiastic about, the great outdoors.

I do feel for the poor lady who was hounded by the press - as usual they get it totally wrong about anything to do with outdoor sports, hamming it up to be horrendously dangerous when of course statistically we're far more likely to get injured in a car accident on the way to the crag, rather than on it!

I have great admiration for Menna who is juggling her college course and her little girl, and trying to pass on her enthusiasm for her sport to her child. I'm sure Ffion has a much better start in life than a great many kids, and good luck to them both :-)
25) Anonymous User
27/05/2012
Highlights some of the problems associated with the use of Social Media which the Media trawl for information - whether fact or fiction.
26) Anonymous User
06/06/2012
It's great she takes the toddler out with her but does she and the BMC actually condone the child not wearing a helmet? Let's face it (and be honest!) there's every chance a rock is going to be dislodged at some stage during any outdoor climb - but with a helmet the chances of injury are minimalised.
Before you ask: Yes I am a climber, yes I have children, yes they go out and about and take part in all sorts of 'dangerous' activities and YES they wear helmets whenever there is a chance of injury such as rock climbing!
27) Anonymous
17/07/2012
This comment broke the house rules and has been removed
28) Anonymous User
23/08/2012
I agree that there is a lot of misconception about climbing. Taking a child climbing is NOT an issue. I do many things with my children that others would call "risky" only because they do not understand the situation. I also agree that the media and people were mean and biased about this story....I do feel for this mama. However, I also feel that what she did was wrong. The clips and such on baby carriers are NOT rated for climbing. If something had failed on that carrier (which they DO come unclipped all the time)...that baby would be dead. Should could have tied a climbing rope around her child and climbed along side of him. I am a mother and have been a rock climber for almost 20 years. I climbing while I was preggo and was met with a lot of confused and negative people. I take my kids climbing (and started when they were 2) but I always take the necessary safety precautions. I am glad this pic received negative feedback. (although threats go to far)...i would hate to advocate for others to follow and do what she is doing here.
29) Anonymous User
23/08/2012
Stop defending her. She got burnt at the stake by the media? I'm more pissed off that she didn't get burnt at the stake by the general climbing community. Her actions set a horrendously dangerous precedent for many reasons:

1) No helmet (unforgivable, sorry)
2) Having a kid strapped to her back raises her center of gravity. In the case of a fall, she will likely get flipped, and (best case) kid will hit his unprotected head or (worse case) kid will fall out and die
3) Kid has no say in the matter. My 6 year old tells me when she wants to come down, or is uncomfortable.

If you are at the crag, and the climber beside you is backclipping, or tied in dangerously, or maybe clips one rope instead of 2 setting up a rappel, do you stand there and not say anything? It is the communities responsibility to stand up for safe practices, and strongly discourage deadly ones. This isn't about woman vs. man, or parent vs. not parent, this is about apathy and blatant ignorance in sport that only offers death in return for either. It's one thing to put yourself in danger, it's a completely different thing to put someone else in danger, especially someone of whose safety it is your sole responsibility.
30) Anonymous User
17/11/2012
I'm sorry for the mom that the story went around the world. However, I am a climber myself with a 2 years old. I would never EVER climb with my son on my back. What if a rock falls on him, what if I trip and hit his arm against the rock? It is dangerous to be under a crag. My son is in his baby park away from loose rocks...

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