Sexual offence anonymity – newsrooms beware

JOURNALISTS need to be very careful with any detail they report about an alleged victim of a sexual offence, as the conviction of former Sun Editor David Dinsmore demonstrates.

The Sun published a photograph of the 15-year-old victim of Adam Johnson- the Sunderland and England international who was convicted of sexual offences against her last week.

The Sun had done a number of things to try to ensure she could not be identified from the photo – they had changed her hair length and colour; they had removed the entire background of the original photo and they had Photoshopped her onto an entirely unrelated background.

However, this was not enough to avoid a decision to bring an action and for the former editor of The Sun to be convicted.

What journalists should note from this case is the impact a Facebook audience had on identification of the victim. The court said that some Facebook users familiar with the image would still recognise her despite The Sun’s efforts.

It is important to understand the test that is applied to determine whether a victim has been identified here. It is not ‘can any man or woman in the street identify the victim from details in the report’. The test is ‘can someone who already knows this person realise they are a victim as a result of any detail in this report.’

People who know the person will have lots of knowledge of context and background which might allow them to identify a victim where the ordinary man or woman in the street would not.

For example, one newspaper was prosecuted for including the fact that the victim in a case had cerebral palsy. This was given in open court and no order was made preventing publication – the courts expect publishers to make their own judgement here and to exercise proper caution.

That detail would not allow the whole world to identify the victim, but in the context of the case, knowing who the defendant was and the area in which the offence was committed, it was a detail leading to identification and the publication was convicted.

Some points to remember about this area of law:

  • A victim gets legal anonymity as soon as the report the offence
  • That report does not have to be to the police, it could be to anyone – a doctor, teacher, work colleague, passer-by – any third party
  • Anonymity lasts a lifetime and is unaffected by the outcome of any proceedings
  • Adult victims can waive their anonymity, in writing
  • Child victims cannot give such a waiver and their parents or guardians have no legal power to do so either
  • An alleged victim who is subsequently prosecuted for an offence in relation to the report, such as perjury; perverting the course of justice or wasting police time lose their anonymity
  • Prosecutions for identification are sometimes brought against the publication and the ‘responsible journalist’ which is often the editor, but chief subs, night editors and reporters have also faced such a prosecution
  • Prosecution is for a sexual offence

It is this final point that journalists should be particularly wary of – this is a criminal conviction for a sexual offence and can have a massive impact on a journalist’s life.

If convicted you have a criminal record which will come up when anyone does a DBS (formerly CRB) check on you. The result they will receive is that you have been convicted of an offence under the Sexual Offences Amendment Act.

One editor I know was facing such a prosecution and was planning a holiday to the US at the same time. He was told by the US authorities that he would not be granted a visa is he was convicted.

In many cases the CPS has dropped the case against the journalist where the publication itself enters a guilty plea. However, this did not happen in the case of David Dinsmore, a clerical error in this case meant The Sun escaped prosecution whereas he did not.

In my view this is an appalling piece of law. To equate what is often an accidental identification of a victim with an act of sexual violence is repellent. It is yet another piece of law used to criminalise journalism.

Of course journalists should take great care with victims and by all means prosecute them where they do not – but not for a sexual offence. It could quite easily be redefined in a Courts Act, or as a contempt.

Until that happens though, this is yet another area where great care needs to be taken by journalists.

If you want your newsroom properly trained to avoid this, and other legal problems, details of the courses I offer can be found on the Training page.

What do you need for the pain? Cold, hard compo

THE Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee has been warned this week that the Government’s Royal Charter regulation plan could result in thousands of expensive compensation cases against local newspapers.

The Newspaper Society warned that up to 1,000 cases a year might have to go to arbitration, with each one costing newspapers thousands of pounds they can ill afford in the current economic climate.

The NS submission included a letter from Tony Jaffa, a solicitor with huge experience in advising regional newspapers, which said: “It seems to me that campaigners for reform of ‘the press’ have little knowledge of the way in which regional and local newspapers operate… I am concerned specifically about the real risk that the reforms being proposed will result in a flood of legal claims against the regional press…

“If the last 23 years of advising the regional press has taught me anything, it is that if those with complaints… think they have an entitlement to money, they will pursue such claims, irrespective of the actual merits… The current proposal for arbitration envisages a system in which the complainant has absolutely nothing to lose and everything to gain by bringing a legal claim.”

He is right, and any editor who has had to deal with complaints will tell you so too.

I remember one tale told me by a regional editor, who shall remain nameless, whose paper had committed some very slight error in reporting an elderly man’s death.

The son had come in to see him to explain, at great length, how this error had devastated the family, his grieving mother in particular.

The editor was sympathetic, and apologetic and said that, of course, the paper would correct the error it had made and apologise.

“Is that all?” came the reply.

Well, said the editor, perhaps a bouquet of flowers for his mother as some small recompense for what was, after all, a genuine mistake, with no malicious intent.

“Is that all?” replied the son, once more.

A little bemused by now, the editor inquired what he felt the newspaper could do further to undo its error.

“Can you not give us something…something…for the pain?” came the reply.

Something meaning cash.

Most complaints people have against regional newspapers are not on grounds of privacy, but accuracy, and do not warrant cash compensation, but prominent correction. The Royal Charter put forward by government would have given that complainant somewhere to seek financial redress for the pain he and his family were feeling, no matter how little merit his case had. And regardless of outcome, it would have cost that newspaper money to go through that process.

If the government Royal Charter goes ahead it will be hard-pushed regional newspapers that will be feeling the pain.

The death of Lucy Meadows

IN the past couple of weeks there has been significant debate over the death of a teacher called Lucy Meadows.

Briefly, Lucy was a primary school teacher, who was transgender, she had previously been Nathan Upton. A letter was sent home to parents last year explaining that in the next term, he would return as Lucy.

This was picked up by local media, and then by national press and a number of articles were run on Lucy.

On March 19 Lucy was found dead. No-one else is being sought in connection with her death. Though there has yet to be a full inquest hearing, the speculation is that Lucy took her own life. Indeed, at the opening of the inquest reference was made to previous attempts Lucy made on her own life. No dates were given for those attempts.

The fact that Lucy’s death followed her exposure in local and national media has led to understandable speculation on the part that exposure may have played in her death. One article in particular, by Richard Littlejohn in the Daily Mail, has attracted particular disapproval. in his column he said, among other things, that not only was Lucy in the wrong body, she was in the wrong job.

There have been calls for his sacking, and a peaceful candlelit vigil outside the Mail’s offices to protest at that piece.

There are two areas on which I feel able to comment. Firstly the speculation about the part press coverage played in Lucy’s death. Secondly, whether journalists have any business knocking on the doors of people like Lucy Meadows.

Some people have been measured in their commentary on the first aspect. While deploring Littlejohn’s column and what they describe as the ‘monstering’ of Ms Meadows, they do not make a direct link between the press behaviour and coverage and her death, until more evidence is heard to establish such a link.

Others have been less circumspect and have made a far more direct causal link between the coverage -the Littlejohn column in particular – and her death.

I think the latter, though I understand their anger, are mistaken.

I have been a journalist for 25 years and have covered many, many inquests. One of the first things you realise when you are sent to cover a day of inquest hearings is how depressingly common suicide is. The other thing you quickly learn as a reporter seeking an answer for your story as to why someone killed themself, is how often it is not explained.

Many of those who take their own lives leave no note, and have not given any indication of an intention to kill themselves. Frequently notes left are equivocal and do not give any clear answers as to why the person too their own life. Almost invariably coroners do not read out notes at the inquest, rather they refer to them and simply say whether they show the deceased had formed an intention to take their own life.

The inquest into Lucy Meadows’ death might give us some answers as to show she died and if she did take her own life, why she may have done that. But it equally might not. Until that inquest it is probably wise to reserve judgement on the part, if any, played by press coverage in her death.

Secondly then, have newspapers and their reports got any business ‘doorknocking’ someone in Lucy Meadows’ position?

Fundamentally, yes.

Firstly, Lucy Meadows has a right to privacy, in what must be an intensely difficult time.

Secondly, as a teacher she holds a position where her actions are going to be scrutinised.

There is a balance to be struck between those two positions and the public interest has to be taken into account.

If a teacher is transgender, that might attract comment from parents, although in Lucy’s case any negative comment seems outweighed by the positive.

But, in my view, it is not wrong to ask the question of parents what they, and their children, think about this. If it is positive, report that. Avoiding the question surely perpetuates the idea that this is something to hide, which it isn’t.

As for Littlejohn’s column. I would like to know, from those who knew her, what Lucy’s thoughts were about it. Was it something she regarded as deeply upsetting, or did she ignore it, indeed, had she even read it? I’m not defending it, but I’m not going to blame her death in it without any evidence whatsoever, which some seem prepared to do.

I would also like to know the extent to which Ms Meadows was ‘monstered’. Was this a pack camped outside the school for days on end, or was it a solitary reporter or agency asking questions at the school gate? I would like to know numbers and duration before I accept that it was a ‘monstering.’

Even those who stop short of blaming Littlejohn for Ms Meadow’s death will say, “We’ll it can’t have helped.” How do they know? They are assigning an effect to the column which is up supposition.

Those calling for Littlejohn to be sacked need to be careful that they do not use a tragic death as a means to attack a paper and writer they don’t like.

I don’t share Littlejohn’s views on transgender people, or pretty much any other minority that features in his columns, but I’m uncomfortable calling for someone to be sacked because they write something I disagree with. Freedom of expression is uncomfortable at times, but it must protect those who express views that we vehemently disagree with, or it’s not a right.

So, for what they are worth, those are my thoughts. If the press coverage did play a part in Ms Meadows’ death then perhaps we as an industry need to look harder at how we cover this issue and those it affects.