Decision of the Complaints Committee 04767-18 A Woman v Harlow Star
Summary of complaint
1. A woman complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the Harlow Star breached Clause 1 (Accuracy), Clause 2 (Privacy) and Clause 7 (Children in sex cases) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in articles headlined “Man accused of sex assault on school girl” published on 26 July 2018, and “Harlow man guilty of kidnapping and sexually assaulting 12-year-old girl” on 2 August 2018.
2. The articles reported on a court case in which a man had been accused, and was then found guilty of, kidnapping and sexually assaulting a child while she was walking home from school. It reported details of the attack which were heard in court. The articles did not name the child, and noted that this was for legal reasons.
3. The first article was also published online on the essexlive.news website with the headline “Schoolgirl screamed ‘help he’s going to rape me’ during attack in Harlow, court hears” on 24 July 2018. It was substantially the same as the print article.
4. The complainant said that the articles breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) because they inaccurately reported what was heard in court. She said that it was untrue for the first article to state that: “… [The child] told police she was followed by a man who then assaulted her” and that “[the child’s] face was pushed to the ground” because the child never knew that she was being followed, and her face was never pushed to the ground. The complainant also said that it was inaccurate for both of the articles to state that the “[the child] was pushed to the ground, grabbed from behind…” because the child collapsed after the attacker covered her mouth with his hand.
5. The complainant said that both of the articles breached Clause 2 (Privacy) and Clause 7 (Children in sex cases). The complainant said that as the child’s character had dramatically changed as a result of the attack, the information contained in the article may have proved sufficient for her peers to guess what had happened. The complainant was very concerned that publishing the child’s age would identify her year group at school, and by naming the area, date, and time in which the attack occurred, the complainant said that it would be possible to work out which school the child attended. The complainant said that the child was extremely distressed by the thought that she could be identified from these articles.
6. The complainant
said that publishing the extremely sensitive details of the case had greatly
upset the child, who was very vulnerable. The complainant said that as the case
was concerned with the identification of the accused and that there was no
dispute that the sexual assault had taken place, it was unnecessary to go into
such detail about the incident, and the article could have focused on evidence concerning
the perpetrator instead.
7. The publication
provided a transcript of the journalist’s notes, which were made at the court
hearing. The publication accepted that these notes did not say that the child
had told police that the man had followed her, or that the attacker pushed the
child’s face to the ground. The publication said that these were not
significant inaccuracies, but as a gesture of goodwill they would be willing to
amend these statements accordingly, as well as publishing an online footnote to
note these changes and a print clarification which would make the correct
8. The publication
did not accept that the statement “She was pushed to the ground, grabbed from
behind” was inaccurate. The publication said that this was taken verbatim from
the journalist’s notes, which accurately quoted the prosecution’s opening
statement heard in court.
9. The publication did not accept that there was any breach of Clause 2 or Clause 7. They said that there were many schools in the vicinity of the attack, and that neither of the articles described any details of the child’s school, only that she was making “her way home from school that afternoon”. For this reason, the publication did not accept that the information published in the articles meant that the child was identifiable.
10. The publication
said that the articles were absolutely not intended to cause distress, however,
all of the information that was included in the article was heard in court, and
thus did not intrude on the child’s privacy. Furthermore, in addition to the
steps they had already taken to ensure that the child remained anonymous, there
were extensive reporting restrictions put in place by the court which ensured
that the child would not be identified.
Relevant Code provisions
11. 1. Accuracy
i) The Press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information or images, including headlines not supported by the text.
ii) A significant inaccuracy, misleading statement or distortion must be corrected, promptly and with due prominence, and — where appropriate — an apology published. In cases involving IPSO, due prominence should be as required by the regulator.
iii) A fair opportunity to reply to significant inaccuracies should be given, when reasonably called for.
iv) The Press, while free to editorialise and campaign, must distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact.
v) A publication must report fairly and accurately the
outcome of an action for defamation to which it has been a party, unless an
agreed settlement states otherwise, or an agreed statement is published.
i) Everyone is entitled to respect for his or her private and family life, home, health and correspondence, including digital communications.
ii) Editors will be expected to justify intrusions into any individual's private life without consent. In considering an individual's reasonable expectation of privacy, account will be taken of the complainant's own public disclosures of information and the extent to which the material complained about is already in the public domain or will become so.
iii) It is unacceptable to photograph individuals, without
their consent, in public or private places where there is a reasonable
expectation of privacy.
7. *Children in sex cases
The press must not, even if legally free to do so, identify children under 16 who are victims or witnesses in cases involving sex offences.
In any press report of a case involving a sexual offence
against a child –
i) The child must not be identified.
ii) The adult may be identified.
iii) The word "incest" must not be used where a child victim might be identified.
iv) Care must be taken that nothing in the report implies
the relationship between the accused and the child.
The Public Interest
There may be exceptions to the clauses marked * where they
can be demonstrated to be in the public interest.
1. The public interest includes, but is not confined to:
2. There is a public interest in freedom of expression
3. The regulator will consider the extent to which material
is already in the public domain or will become so.
4. Editors invoking the public interest will need to
demonstrate that they reasonably believed publication - or journalistic
activity taken with a view to publication – would both serve, and be
proportionate to, the public interest and explain how they reached that
decision at the time.
5. An exceptional public interest would need to be
demonstrated to over-ride the normally paramount interests of children under
Findings of the Committee
12. The Committee expressed its sympathy to the complainant
for the circumstances under which this complaint arose.
13. The notes taken by the journalist in court did not
record that the child had told police that the man had followed her, or that
the attacker pushed the child’s face to the ground. However, the prosecution
had said that the man had followed the child, and it was accepted that the
court had heard that the child had been pushed to the ground. In these
circumstances, the inaccuracies were not significant, and the article did not
require correction under the terms of Clause 1(ii). However, the Committee
welcomed the publication’s offer to clarify the articles in order to make the complainant’s
position clear. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.
14. The complainant said that the statement that read: “[the
child] was pushed to the ground, grabbed from behind…” was not heard in court.
However, the publication produced the reporter’s contemporaneous notes of court
proceedings, which included this statement; there was no failure to take care
over the reporting of court proceedings. The Committee did not find that the
article included a significant inaccuracy requiring correction. There was no
breach of Clause 1.
15. The complainant said the child could be identified as
the victim of the attack. However, she said that this was because the child’s
behaviour and demeanour had changed following the incident. The Code underlines
the protections afforded to child victims of sexual assault. In this case, the
Committee did not consider that there was any information included in the
article which could lead to the identification of the child. There was no
breach of Clause 7.
16. The Committee was
clear that publications are entitled to report on information heard in court,
subject to exceptions such as Clause 7, even though this may be upsetting to
those involved in a case. Publications do not need a justification for
publishing details of court cases. In this case, the articles did not reveal
anything that was not made public in court, and complied with the reporting
restrictions put in place by the Judge. For this reason, the articles did not
breach of Clause 2.
17. The complaint was not upheld
Date complaint received: 30/07/2018
Date decision issued: 05/11/2018
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