Decision of the Complaints Committee – 30061-20 A woman v hertfordshiremercury.co.uk
Summary of Complaint
1. A woman complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that hertfordshiremercury.co.uk breached Clause 4 (Intrusion into grief and shock) and Clause 7 (Children in sex cases) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article published in May 2020.
2. This decision is written in general terms, to avoid the inclusion of information which could identify a victim of sexual assault.
3. The article reported on the conviction of a man who had been found guilty of multiple offences, including counts of sexual abuse. The article described the man as having filmed himself raping a young child; gave the exact age of the child; the time frame over which the abuse took place; and a reference to the frequency of the abuse. The article reported who had initially alerted the police to the identity of the defendant in relation to separate allegations.
4. The complainant was a family member of the victim. She said that the article breached Clause 7, as the victim of the assault was identifiable. She said that by reporting the precise age of the young child; the time frame in which the abuse took place; reference to the frequency of the abuse; the town the assaults took place in; and the identity of the person who had reported the defendant to the police, readers would be able to work out that the identity of the young victim. She also said a published police report and another newspaper’s article, in which the man had not been named, had also reported the age of the victim; the dates of the offences; the age of the man; and the town the offences took place in. The complainant said that the information that had been given in the previous article and the police report, when coupled with the information contained in the article under complaint, led to the victim being identifiable in breach of Clause 7: had been recognised by extended family members, friends of the family and neighbours.
5. The complainant also said that the article intruded into her family’s grief and shock in breach of Clause 4. She said the headline of the article, which referred to the rape of a young child, was in itself insensitive and caused grief to the family. The complainant also considered a tweet from one of the journalists who had written the article about the coverage, about the article, and comments in the article on the case, were insensitive in tone and intruded into the shock of the family of the victim.
6. The publication did not accept a breach of the Code; it said that nothing in the report either identified the child or implied their identity. It noted that the standard wording of orders made by the court under the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act 1999 regarding publicity of victims is that “no matter may be published that would identify them, including their name, address, any educational establishment or any workplace they attend, and any picture of them”. It said that age was not one of these features, and that none of the prohibited features had been published in the article. It noted that the town referred to in the article had a population of over 33,500. The publication said that, whilst people may have been able to guess the victim, this was not due to the information contained in the article, and that people may come to their own conclusions outside of the publication.
7. The publication said that the article did not reveal the critical information that would have identified the young child, and it was satisfied that the purposeful omission of several details meant the victim’s identity could not be established from the information in the article or the information which was already in the public domain. It noted that the court had previously stated it had no concerns about the media reporting when the article under complaint was published.
8. The publication said that it had not breached Clause 4. It said that a terrible crime had taken place, but reporting it was not enough to engage Clause 4 itself. The publication also said that the tweet could not breach Clause 4 as it was not an enquiry or approach, nor did it have editorial control over the journalist’s personal Twitter account, so it could not be considered to be part of the publication.
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 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.
Findings of the Committee
9. The Committee recognised the important public interest in reporting on sexual assault crimes, and that the publication had taken steps to reduce the likelihood that the child would be identified as the victim of the assaults for which the defendant had been convicted. While the article did contain some information about the young victim and the circumstances in which the abuse took place, it had omitted a number of pertinent details which may have led readers to identify the victim. Having reviewed the details that had been included, the Committee concluded that they did not identify the victim or otherwise breach Clause 7. The Committee wrote to both parties confidentially, separate to this decision, outlining its reasons in more detail.
10. The Committee acknowledged how distressing the publication of the article was for the complainant and her family; the matters discussed in the article were incredibly sensitive and had caused huge upset. The question for it to consider regarding the article was whether publication had been handled sensitively in the terms of Clause 4. The Committee noted first the context: the article was a report of court proceedings. It set out the gravity of the crimes committed by the man, and the headline, although shocking, accurately represented the seriousness of the case. It did not mock, sensationalise or ridicule the victim or the family of the victim. The report was not insensitive in the terms of Clause 4, and there was no breach of the Code on this point.
11. The complainant had also said that a tweet from the reporter was insensitive in breach of Clause 4. The publication did not have editorial control over the journalist’s Twitter account, and therefore the tweet did not constitute material published by the publication. Clause 4 does not only relate to publication, however; it also relates to the activities of journalists in preparing material for publication, in that it requires that “enquiries and approaches must be made with sympathy and discretion”. The Committee therefore considered whether the tweet was an “enquiry” or “approach”. The tweet was published after the article was published, and was a public comment on the experience of reporting on the case, rather than a comment directed at or to the complainant or her family. On this basis, the Committee concluded that did not constitute an approach or enquiry of the newspaper. Clause 4 was not engaged. Nonetheless, the Committee took this opportunity to draw attention to the importance of observing the terms of Clause 4 not only in what is published, but also in the reporting process.
12. The complaint was not upheld.
Remedial Action Required
Date complaint received: 23/12/2020
Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 19/08/2021Back to ruling listing