04767-18 A Woman v Harlow Star

    • Date complaint received

      30th November 2018

    • Outcome

      No breach - after investigation

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy, 2 Privacy, 7 Children in sex cases

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 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 position clear.

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.

2. *Privacy

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:

  • Detecting or exposing crime, or the threat of crime, or serious impropriety.
  • Protecting public health or safety.
  • Protecting the public from being misled by an action or statement of an individual or organisation.
  • Disclosing a person or organisation’s failure or likely failure to comply with any obligation to which they are subject.
  • Disclosing a miscarriage of justice.
  • Raising or contributing to a matter of public debate, including serious cases of impropriety, unethical conduct or incompetence concerning the public.
  • Disclosing concealment, or likely concealment, of any of the above.

2. There is a public interest in freedom of expression itself.

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 16.

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

Remedial action

18.  N/A

Date complaint received: 30/07/2018

Date decision issued: 05/11/2018