Decision of the Complaints Committee – 11855-21 A woman and two men v thewestmorlandgazette.co.uk
Summary of Complaint
1. A woman and two men complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that thewestmorlandgazette.co.uk breached Clause 4 (Intrusion into grief or shock) and Clause 11 (Victims of sexual assault) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article published in November 2021.
2. This decision is written in general terms, to avoid the inclusion of information which could identify an alleged victim of sexual assault. The complainants were the man who was the victim of an alleged sexual assault, and two of his family members.
3. The article, which appeared online only, reported that two men had entered not guilty pleas in relation to charges arising from an alleged sexual assault and other crimes. The article set out the specific charges, and reported that one of the charges was a sexual assault involving the use of a specific named object. The article also named the two men accused of the crime, and gave their ages and addresses. Finally, the article referred to a co-defendant in the case, who was a teenager and could not be named due to his age.
4. The complainants said that the article breached Clause 4, as they considered it included gratuitous detail about the attack which was insensitive – namely, the specific object which was used during the alleged assault. They said that, while this information was heard in court, they did not see why it was necessary to include it in the news report; they believed that, in doing so, the publication had sensationalised a traumatic incident and had not taken into account the mental health and wellbeing of the victim and witness. They also expressed concern that the article had not made clear that the case was ongoing and under investigation.
5. The complainants also said that the article breached Clause 11, as they did not consider the newspaper had been sufficiently vigilant in protecting the identity of the victim. They said that, while the publication had not published the name of the victim, it would have been aware that the case was widely known in the local community and had been a source of gossip and speculation. While the complainants noted that the victim had been previously identified in social media posts circulated amongst the community, they said that the article led to increased scrutiny for him, noting that given the “amount of gossip going around town” the publication should have realised that “many, many people knew who had been assaulted”. They also said that, by naming the defendants in the case, the link between them and the victim could be established, and therefore the victim could possibly have been identified – though they did not say that anyone had identified him as a result of the article’s publication.
6. The complainants finally expressed concerns, framed under Clause 4 and Clause 11, that the comment function had been left open on the article and on social media. They considered that allowing readers’ comments promoted a culture in which victim blaming was encouraged and, as the comments were not moderated in a timely manner, was reckless and detrimental to the wellbeing of those involved in the assault. The comment function was removed before the complainants were able to provide the specific comments which caused them concern to IPSO.
7. The publication, while it apologised for any upset caused by the article, said it did not consider that it breached the Editors’ Code. It said that it had taken care to sensitively cover a complex case and taken its responsibility to not identify a victim of sexual assault seriously. It also said that – other than reporting that the victim was a man – it had included no other details about him in the article. It then noted that the specific object used during the alleged assault had formed part of the charges and had been heard in court and that, taking into account its duty to fairly and accurately report on legal proceedings, it had included this detail. It further noted that, in its view, it was in the public interest to refer to the specific object to correct assumptions widely circulating in the public domain, which it said alluded to a more serious allegation. It also provided a copy of the indictment, which included a reference to the object, to support its position on this point.
8. The publication also noted that an editor had reviewed the story prior to publication, to ensure that extra care was taken not to publish identifying details about the victim.
9. The publication accepted that comments should not have been allowed on the article and accepted full responsibility for the oversight. It said that two comments which appeared on the article had been reported to it, and it had removed these – and had later turned off the commenting facility altogether. It then said that it would remind all those working for the newspaper to ensure comments were turned off for live cases such as the one which the article reported on and offered its assurances that the case would be approached with sensitivity moving forward.
10. The publication proposed to resolve the complaint, by adding the following footnote to the article:
An earlier version of this article in error had the comments section enabled. The Westmorland Gazette would like to apologise for any concern this caused.
Relevant Code Provisions
Clause 4 (Intrusion into grief or shock)
In cases involving personal grief or shock, enquiries and approaches must be made with sympathy and discretion and publication handled sensitively. These provisions should not restrict the right to report legal proceedings
Clause 11 (Victims of sexual assault)
The press must not identify or publish material likely to lead to the identification of a victim of sexual assault unless there is adequate justification and they are legally free to do so. Journalists are entitled to make enquiries but must take care and exercise discretion to avoid the unjustified disclosure of the identity of a victim of sexual assault.
Findings of the Committee
11. The Committee understood that the article under complaint had caused a great deal of stress and upset to the complainants during a difficult period in their lives. However, its role was to make a finding as to whether the specific clauses of the Editors’ Code had been breached, and in doing so it would have to a reach a decision, under Clause 4, as to whether the article had reported on the case sensitively. The Committee was mindful that, in considering the complaint, it would have to consider factors beyond the impact the article had on the complainants, such as the right of the press to report on legal proceedings.
12. The publication had provided an indictment which clearly showed that the specific object used during the alleged assault was included in one of the charges. In the context of a court report covering a plea hearing, and where the terms of Clause 4 make clear that publications should not be restricted from reporting on legal proceedings, the Committee did not consider that including the specific object represented insensitive reporting in breach of Clause 4. It considered this to be the case having balanced the clear distress experienced by the complainants with the need for newspapers to be able to accurately report on legal proceedings, including the charges faced by the defendants, noting that the newspaper had not gone beyond what had been heard in court in this regard. There was therefore no breach of Clause 4 on this point.
13. The Committee understood that the complainants were concerned about the increased scrutiny following the publication of the article and had expressed concerns that – by including the names of the defendants – the article included information which had the potential to identify the victim. The Committee noted first that the complainants had not said that anyone had identified the victim due to the article, and that they had said that the identity of the victim was widely known amongst the local community prior to the article’s publication, due to other material widely shared on social media. It also noted that the article itself contained only one piece of information about the victim – his gender – and did not include other information, such as details about the circumstances of the allegations against the defendants, that were likely to identify him. The Committee did not consider that the article included information which identified or was likely to lead to the identification of the victim, and there was no breach of Clause 11.
14. The complainants had also expressed concerns that the commenting function had been left on the article and social media posts. The Committee noted that Clause 4 and Clause 11 do not, in and of themselves, restrict the right of publications to allow comment facilities on articles which relate to cases of grief or shock or sexual offences, or require that such comments are pre-moderated
15. IPSO can consider complaints about specific comments if they have been subject to editorial control by the publication, either through pre-moderation or through a decision to continue publishing once they have been flagged. In this instance, two comments which had been reported to the publication had been removed immediately when reported, and therefore they fell outside of IPSO’s remit.
16. Nevertheless, the Committee welcomed the publication’s decision to turn off the commenting function altogether after it was notified of the concerns about the two comments, and its proposal to publish a footnote apologising for the comments being allowed. It noted that this incident illustrated the need for care to be taken over the use of commenting facilities on such sensitive stories.
17. While the Committee understood that the complainants were concerned that the article did not make clear that an investigation into the incident was ongoing, it noted that the article made clear that the court case which it reported on was ongoing, and therefore there was no breach of the Code on this point.
18. The complaint was not upheld.
Remedial Action Required
Date complaint received: 31/03/2022
Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 24/05/2022Back to ruling listing