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.

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The continuing threat of contempt

THE publisher of GQ magazine was recently fined £10,000 in a case that reminds us contempt of court remains a serious legal threat to journalists.

GQ was found guilty of contempt last year after they published an article by US journalist Michael Wolff during the phone hacking trial of Rebekah Brooks.

Last month they were fined £10,000 for the offence, which is pretty low for contempt fines – courts have unlimited powers of fine for contempt. Those of us with long memories know The Sun set the record when it was fined £80,000 for contempt and it’s then editor Kelvin McKenzie was personally fined £20,000 (and that was in the ’90s, so allowing for inflation that would be an even more savage fine today.

The GQ article was a piece of commentary, and it was run in the magazine during the trial itself. It also included certain information that the jury had not been told about during the trial.

The contempt proceedings are reported by the Guardian here, and last week’s hearing to set the fine can be found here.

Some points about the case worth noting:

Firstly, journalists will often point out that jurors are warned not to do Internet research about a case and so any juror finding the material must have ignored that warning. That sounds logical on the face of it, but in practice that is not how things work.

This was a contemporaneous report, not something sitting in GQ’s online archive that a juror had to unearth. It was published during the trial and was trailed in the front page of the magazine.

Jurors are warned not to do research, but they are not told to avoid the daily reporting of proceedings. Fair, accurate reports of the day’s evidence are not a contempt risk, so long as they stick to what the jurors have heard or seen in court that day. The GQ article went beyond that and included information the jury had not heard as well as suggesting Rebekah Brooks was a disreputable woman.

Any commentary attacking the character of a defendant during trial is a real risk of contempt, unless, of course, it was given in evidence during the trial and so would have been heard by the jury.

Secondly, even if the material was published before trial and unearthed by a juror ignoring the judge’s warning, the publisher could still be prosecuted. The Attorney General and the courts take the view that the publisher is wrong for putting it there and the juror is wrong for looking for it, so both could be prosecuted.

Finally, it illustrates the perils of ‘comment’ journalism, which is very popular at the moment. In many areas it is completely risk-free, but running commentary on a live court case that is being tried by a jury is fraught with danger.

This threat to fair trials posed by prejudicial online material is one of the reasons we have seen an increase in the number of contempt prosecutions in recent years. The last Attorney General, Dominic Grieve QC warned when he took office that the so-called fade factor, the idea that prejudicial material published at the time of a crime was safe because it would have faded from a juror’s memory by the time of trial, no longer held true in these days of searchable online publication.

The current Attorney General, Peter Wright QC, does not seem to share quite the same enthusiasm for prosecution as his predecessor, but the GQ case should serve as a warning to editors that he is prepared to prosecute where publications overstep the mark

GQ were able to point to mitigating factors which helped reduce their fine. They had taken legal advice over the article, so it was not a case of them being reckless about contempt, even though they made the wrong call on the day. They withdrew thousands of magazines from circulation and pulped them when the legal problems with the article became clear. They also paid the AG’s prosecution costs of £50,000.

If you want to avoid contempt of court, you could start by reading my post on doing just that. It remains by far and away the most-read post on this site, which perhaps shows how worried journalists are about it (although in reality libel is much more frequent and potentially more expensive).

In the long run though, I wonder how long contempt can try to hold back the tide of prejudicial publication in high profile trials. You only have to take a brief look (though definitely not if you are a juror in the case) at some of the social media postings about the trial of Adam Johnson to see that the law is struggling here.

You might argue that no rational juror would take any notice of social media blowhards with minimal followings. But some of the people commenting are well-known themselves and clearly know nothing of this area of law (and why should they) or else do not think it applies to social media.

They are wrong, but it will take a prosecution to hammer home that message. If the Attorney General is prepared to prosecute a newspaper with 50,000 readers, how can he justify not prosecuting someone with a million Twitter followers?

Tweeting your way into prison

I ARRIVED home one Friday evening to a flurry of messages from sports reporters who follow me on Twitter.

“You have got to get on Twitter and see what Joey Barton is up to,” they said.

I logged on to find that Barton had decided to give the world the benefit of his thoughts on the viability of John Terry’s not guilty plea to a charge of racially abusing Anton Ferdinand – a charge for which he had yet to stand trial.

Barton was typically forthright and one memorable tweet described Terry’s plea as an insult to any juror’s intelligence.

Was Barton, I was being asked somewhat hopefully it has to be said, up to his neck in contempt and would his next fixture be in court facing the Attorney General?

Fortunately for football, and Twitter’s, favourite bad boy @Joey7Barton was in the clear because Terry’s case was to be tried by magistrates, who are beyond the influence of the media, and certainly incapable of being swayed by the tweets of a footballer. Indeed, Terry was eventually found not guilty.

But as was clear from his tweet mentioning jurors, Barton didn’t know this, and nor did the many people who assumed he was about to be prosecuted for contempt.

This was a sign of things to come. Following press inquiries, the Attorney General’s office announced the following Monday that Barton would not be facing any action. But since he was appointed the AG, Dominic Grieve QC, has made it clear he takes contempt very seriously and has warned that he would prosecute bloggers and tweeters as well as traditional media if they overstepped the mark.

So it came to pass last month that two men were given nine-month suspended prison sentences after they admitted contempt by publishing on Twitter and Facebook photographs purporting to show the killers of James Bulger, Robert Thompson and Jon Venables as adults. Both are subject to a court order banning publication of any details about their new identities, location or photographs of them.

The case is the latest in a long line of incidents where ordinary members of the public have taken to social media and found themselves charged with a crime; facing substantial damages in a civil action or else doing untold damage to their own reputation through an errant post.

We are all publishers now, but mainstream publishers know the law, and even they get into trouble reasonably often. Setting up a Twitter or Facebook account is the work of moments and if memory serves does not entail a run-down of the legal pitfalls that await the unwary.

Perhaps it should, because the past year has seen a catalogue of cases illustrating the variety of ways in which individuals can break the law online.

For example, some supporters of Ched Evans, a Sheffield United and Wales footballer, took to Twitter when he was convicted of rape, naming the victim. Ten of them were tracked down by North Wales Police. They now have a criminal record for an offence under the Sexual Offences Amendment Act 1992.

Even the judicial process itself can be derailed by the injudicious use of Twitter or Facebook. One juror had to be discharged after she confessed to her Facebook friends that she was having difficulty deciding the case she was trying so asked them to help. Another was sentenced to eight months in prison after she Facebook friended a defendant she had just acquitted and gave her a running commentary on the two co-defendants that were still being tried.

Police forces are finding their time increasingly being used to investigate messages on social media.

The man who sent obnoxious tweets to diver Tom Daley after he ‘only’ managed an Olympic bronze found himself the victim of Tweetmob after the diver RTd him and then got a knock on the door from the police who issued a warning for harassment.

The Director of Public Prosecutions, Keir Starmer, recently issued interim guidance on when it would be suitable to prosecute such messages. However, even with that guidance in place, as more and more people sign up for such media, the caseload for police and the court can only increase.

And that is just the criminal side of the issue. The capacity for user to publish libels and breach others’ privacy on social media is huge.

A retweet takes just two button pushes, and as we saw from the Lord McAlpine libel case, several hundred people found that all too easy to do. It seems the retweeters are being let off with an apology, deletion of the tweet and a nominal donation to charity. Others who tweeted more are embroiled in actions launched by the peer.

There seems to be a perception among those who find themselves in difficulty that a post on social media is not like publication. Many will say things like it’s ‘just my opinion’ or that they were simply not aware that what they were doing was against the law.

But it is. Conversations confined to the saloon bar or the dinner party table are being committed to the internet where they are permanent and searchable.

And here lies the challenge for our lawmakers, and to an extent the publishing platforms that allow people to get into so much trouble.

It may be that well-publicised cases such as the purported Bulger killer pictures and the McAlpine libel may serve as a deterrent. If they do not have that effect then the DPP, CPS and the government perhaps need to examine the law to see whether they are content for ever-larger numbers of people to criminalise themselves in this way.

We cannot expect Twitter, Facebook, Blogger and others to police every item that is published by their users, nor would we want them to for well-founded reasons of freedom of speech. However, they could give better guidance to users when opening an account about the kinds of material that can get them into legal trouble.

If nothing is done, then the police, courts and, before long I predict, prisons are going to be busy.

If you are worried about your own, or your employees’ liability for what is published on social media, I run courses on how to make the most from these platforms, while avoiding potentially serious and costly legal problems. Contact me via the contacts page, above

The rise, and rapid demise, of Paris Brown

A WEEK is a long time in politics and even longer in the life of a youth police and crime commissioner.

The fledgling career of Paris Brown, 17 who had won the £15k post was stopped before it even started after tweets she posted when 14 to 16 were uncovered by the Mail on Sunday.

They had found posts in which she had used the racist and homophobic terms ‘pikey’ and ‘fag’.

After an initial show of support from the Kent Police and Crime Commissioner, Ann Barnes, by yesterday it was clear things had gone too far when Kent Police announced they we investigating some of the posts on Twitter. Paris Brown announced in a press conference that she would not be taking up the post of youth commissioner.

So, was the MoS right to reveal the tweets of a teenager, and did she need to go? Well, probably yes to both questions. Here’s why.

In the normal course of things the tweets that she sent, for which she has now apologised, are not really a matter of public interest. While using those terms is always unacceptable, she was not targeting an individual in making them – she said, for instance, that the cast of Made In Chelsea all ‘looked like fags’. Unpleasant, certainly, but qualitatively different from applying that word to a individual gay person in a tweet directed at them.

So ordinarily one would say that this is probably not something that ought to concern a national newspaper and were the Daily Mail to do page leads on the offensive postings of teenagers, they would need to run a special supplement every day and a very large one at that. But they don’t, the Mail, despite views to the contrary expressed by its detractors on Twitter, and there are many, is not interested in the ill-considered tweets of the nation’s youth.

Paris Brown is only 17, and, as I tweeted yesterday, I would hate to be reminded of some of the deeply stupid things I probably said when I was that age. Pity the poor teenager today whose every tweet and Facebook post is potentially immortal, a digital albatross circling them for the rest of their life. They ought to be able to live down their indiscretions, offensive as they may be, just as those of us who grew up pre-Internet were able to do.

Many people Paris’s age use social media in the same way they would just talking in the pub – it is as full of the trite, offensive, deeply meaningful, nonsensical, emotional, heartfelt and daft as such conversations always have been. but now they are broadcast to the world, are permanent and searchable. To them a post on Facebook or Twitter is as simple and quick as thought, but they are thinking out loud, very loud.

So was the press in general and the MoS in particular, right to cover this in the way they did? This is where the public interest comes into play. Paris Brown was soon to be employed on the public purse, albeit that some of her salary would come from Ann Barnes’ own, it was still taxpayers’ money that would be funding her post. She would be responsible for engaging with people her age as part of that role. So her right to privacy has to be balanced against the public’s right to know what a public servant in this position actually thinks.

Given the fact that a youth commissioner charged with communicating with young people is inevitably going to do that by using social media, it is not unreasonable to ask what views she has expressed on those media.

It is a question that those employing her should perhaps have asked before announcing her appointment. To be fair to Ann Barnes, Ms Brown was put through Kent Police’s normal vetting process for the level of role she was taking up. That vetting process did not include looking at her postings on social media. One would imagine that that vetting process is being rapidly revised in light of recent events.

If they did not think of looking at Paris Brown’s tweets, it was blindingly obvious that any journalist worth his or her salt would do. It is what journalists do. Gay people in Kent and those from ethnic minority groups have a right to know what any public servant holding such a position thinks about them and the language they use gives you a clue.

In the end she did the right thing, which was inevitable once police were investigating, and declined the post. I suspect the police will shortly announce no further action, because if they take this to court, then they need to start building some new ones to cope with the influx of those who have posted similar and worse. She can, as she hopes, move on, and any social media consultants in Kent would do well to sign her up to provide true-life lessons to schools, colleges and universities on the perils of the intemperate post.

Paris Brown said yesterday she hoped this would stand as a lesson to young people. That is very true. Some surveys have shown that more than half of prospective employers look at potential employees social media postings, and 40 per cent of them don’t make a job offer as a result of what they find. You cast a long social media shadow, and along lasting one at that.

Ann Barnes said yesterday, referring to Leveson, that it was the role of the press to break news, but not to break people. Very true, and Paris Brown ought not to be broken by this now she has turned down her new post. But organisations cannot have it all ways, if you want your staff to engage on social media you have to accept the risks as well as the benefits that brings. You cannot control the every thought and tweet of your staff.

We are just beginning to understand the revolution in communication that social media has brought about. Paris Brown is a casualty of that revolution.

There will be many more.