A 15-year-old lad contested local elections and was elected. He turns 16 around the time you’re reading this, in between his O level exams and just before he gets sworn in as councillor. He comes from a family of politicians. His grandfather and his mother are in politics. One can only think he’s very committed to politics, he’s genuinely interested, and he has a solid contribution to make for the betterment of the lives of his neighbours.

Fifteen-year-old people can be smart and committed. In my life right now there’s a 16-year-old and a 14-year-old. They are responsible and though they have different interests I’m sure they could hold their own in a discussion about how to make village life better. If I can believe that of children I know, I can believe it of this new about-to-be-16 councillor.

How do we as journalists cover the political life of a pubescent councillor? What’s our mission here as journalists and commenters? Does our job of making sure the public understands who they have elected to represent them work the same way when we’re talking about a child in political office? Is a 16-year-old councillor a child or a politician?

I shall leave the boy I am writing about unnamed and I shall not carry a photo of him with this commentary. Not because of some objective rule I’d be breaking if I did name him. His name and his photo are all over the press and you’d be right to think that someone who contests elected office and is elected to it is accountable to public scrutiny whatever their age. I am leaving the name and picture out, because of queasiness, because I am perplexed with a dilemma that is the subject of this post.

Social media reactions to coverage of this boy’s election to this local council included posts in this vein:

“he sent me a vid of him pissing once 😭😭”

“Bro Da kien jibatli videos ta nies immutu😭😭”

“This guy sold my brother fentanyl”

“CRAZZYY if only every girl would expose him”

“he tried selling me fentanyl behind lidl”

“can’t belive they’re letting a 15 year old who texts girls under his age go as a candidate xx”

“You should see my screen shots, how the hell can you be a local council candidate when he harasses women. Unbelievable”

“this is the same guy who literally called me a homophobic slur and then attempted to groom an 11 year old nice one guys”

“😂😂 if they search his phone he will be shut down straight away”

“kieku tafu l imbarazz li jibat dan it tifel. Ara vera spiccajna 🤷🏽‍♀️”

There are many, many more, all largely repeating these lines. I have left them untranslated and unexplained (and uncorrected) because they are, quite literally, words spoken out of the mouths of babes. I mean ‘babes’ in the psalmist’s sense, not in the sense of Grand Theft Auto the videogame.

Most of these posts are put up by clearly identifiable people, name, surname, and photograph supplied. They appear to all be around the new councillor’s age or younger. They make allegations that if spoken about any politician, they would justify, require even, investigation, verification, publication, and comment.

What do I do? Do I call up a 15-year-old boy and ask him to react to allegations of drug trafficking and child abuse? Is that my job as a reporter?

The fact is we have structures and procedures to protect children, even children who might be troublesome or going through troubled times. Those structures are not helped by the public exposure of a 15-year-old and what people their age or younger say about them on social media. That’s why journalists would be extremely careful to identify a 15-year-old in any kind of trouble. Courts would as a rule not allow the publication of their names. But courts too are required to be far less zealous when protecting people in elected office. What would they do in this case?

I am not one to judge this young councillor’s parents or his family. But this post may quite possibly force them to deny these allegations about their boy. Is this really something they should have to do? I do sympathise with their plight.

Frankly if the law gives my teenage children the right to contest elections, who am I, even as their parent, to do more than seek to discourage them? I certainly can’t see how I could forbid them from exercising a right given to them by the law of the land. But what more could I do if they got into trouble while themselves in elected office? Would it be enough to ground them for two weekends?

More seriously, how would I explain to them that by seeking elected office they would be renouncing their right to make mistakes and do crazy things that teenagers do? I’m not talking about grooming minors or selling drugs. But they will do things I do not approve of from which they should be able to recover unharmed. I was a teenager once. I got drunk a few times. I skinny dipped. I did ‘crazy things’ which earned me no worse than a grounding from my parents. I didn’t get clobbered on social media. I was not embarrassed by questions from reporters.

If a full-grown adult in public office gets drunk and behaves embarrassingly in the great outdoors, the press is in duty bound to let the public know about it. You can’t have a government minister drink driving, for example. For that matter you can’t have a 15-year-old being drunk in the street, but is it not for their parents to deal with that if and when it happens? Isn’t the 15-year-old still growing and learning from their mistakes?

How have we inflicted this on 15-year-old boys and girls? Why have we denied them the right to make mistakes and to recover from them privately? Without denying their ability to contribute to political life, why did we need to make them do it?

And if I see the world from my point of view, here’s a new question for the ethicists. How do I, as a commenter on public affairs, deal with this?