Ruling

20795-17 A woman v Mail Online

    • Date complaint received

      14th June 2018

    • Outcome

      No breach - after investigation

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy, 11 Victims of sexual assault, 2 Privacy, 9 Reporting of crime

Decision of the Complaints Committee A woman v Mail Online

Summary of Complaint 

1.    A woman complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that Mail Online breached Clause 1 (Accuracy), Clause 2 (Privacy), Clause 3 (Harassment) and Clause 11 (Victims of sexual assault) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article published on 13 December 2017. 

2.    The article reported that the complainant was on trial for assault and wasting police time, offences for which the complainant was subsequently acquitted. It stated that the court had heard that the complainant, who had previously appeared on a television talent show, had allegedly “assaulted a man on a stag night” and “falsely accused him of sexual assault”. The article detailed the circumstances of the incident as they were heard in court, and stated that the trial was continuing. The article also included a number of photographs of the complainant. One photograph showed her outside court and another was a photograph from when she appeared on the TV talent show. 

3.    The complainant said that she was a victim of sexual assault and that this meant that she should not have been named or identified in the article. She said that she had found the article deeply distressing and believed that identifying her and publishing photographs of her had breached her privacy. 

4.    She also said that her appearance on a TV show five years ago did not make her a public figure and did not warrant the publication of the article. She said that the photographer who had taken the photograph of her outside court had been hidden. She said that this conduct, as well as publishing an article, which she believed gave the impression that she had been found guilty, amounted to harassment. 

5.    She also raised concern that the article reported only the evidence heard in support of the prosecution of the trial, which she said was not an accurate account of the event. She said omitting her evidence meant that the article was not balanced and therefore inaccurate. 

6.    The publication did not accept that it had breached the Editors’ Code. It said that the article was a report of one day of court proceedings and had been provided to the publication by a reputable news agency. It said that the article was an accurate report of what had been heard in court that day, and said the article had been updated as the case continued. 

7.    The publication said that the terms of Clause 11 (Victims of sexual assault) specified that the press were free to identify victims of sexual assault if they are legally free to do so and there is adequate justification. It said that the Sexual Offences Act made clear that an alleged victim of a sexual offence can be identified in articles that are a report of any other criminal proceedings other than proceedings specifically examining the alleged sexual offence. In these circumstances, the publication believed it was legally free to identify the complainant. Also, where the complainant was accused of assault and wasting police time, the publication argued that it was justified in naming the complainant, as it said that reporting legal proceedings was one of the most important functions of the press and was vital to the principle of open justice. 

8.    The publication said that where the article reported information that had all been heard in court, and as there was no restriction in place to prohibit the publication of this information, it did not accept that the article was an intrusion into the complainant’s privacy. 

9.    Furthermore, where the photograph of the complainant outside court was taken by a reputable freelance photographer. It said that the photograph had been taken on a public street outside court by the side entrance of the court. In these circumstances, the publication maintained that the complainant did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy and denied that this conduct constituted harassment.  

10. It said that the article was a report of the prosecution’s case and had made clear that the trial was continuing. It provided a link to an article that was published after the trial had concluded, which made clear that the complainant had been found not guilty. The publication also published a bullet point sub headline to the original article to make clear that the complainant later denied the charges and had been found not guilty.

Relevant Code Provisions 

11. Clause 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.

Clause 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. Account will be taken of the complainant’s own public disclosures of information.

iii) It is unacceptable to photograph individuals, without their consent, in public or private places where there is a reasonable expectation of privacy.

Clause 3 (Harassment) *

i) Journalists must not engage in intimidation, harassment or persistent pursuit.

ii) They must not persist in questioning, telephoning, pursuing or photographing individuals once asked to desist; nor remain on property when asked to leave and must not follow them. If requested, they must identify themselves and whom they represent.

iii) Editors must ensure these principles are observed by those working for them and take care not to use non-compliant material from other sources.

Clause 11 (Victims of sexual assault)

The press must not identify victims of sexual assault or publish material likely to contribute to such identification unless there is adequate justification and they are legally free to do so.

Findings of the Committee 

12. The Code offers specific protection to victims of sexual assault, and recognises their legal right to anonymity. While the Committee acknowledged the complainant’s position that she was a victim of sexual assault and therefore should not have been identified, the terms of Clause 11 make clear that victims can be identified by publications when there is adequate justification and they are legally free to do so. In this instance, the publication had outlined that legal anonymity applies only to the criminal proceedings of the alleged sexual offence, and is not a blanket anonymity that precludes the reporting of any other criminal proceedings involving the victim.  In these circumstances, the Committee was satisfied that the publication was legally free to name the complainant as required under the terms of Clause 11. 

13. The Committee also acknowledged the importance of the principle of open justice, and the public interest served by reporting what is heard in court in an open and transparent way. The article was a contemporaneous report of a court case in which the complainant was facing charges of assault and wasting police time. Where the allegation of sexual assault was central to these ongoing proceedings, the Committee was satisfied that the publication was justified in identifying the complainant as an alleged victim of sexual assault. In these circumstances there was no breach of Clause 11. 

14. The Editors’ Code recognises that publications are generally entitled to report court proceedings in full, save for exceptional circumstances, such as when a legal restriction has been put in place by the court. The Committee acknowledged that in this instance the complainant was distressed that personal information, including the fact that she alleged that sexual assault had taken place was included in the article. However, the article was reporting on court proceedings where the complainant was facing criminal charges regarding an allegation of wasting police time. In these circumstances, the information heard during proceedings was a matter of public record, and the reporting of this information formed part of the principle of open justice. There was no breach of Clause 2 in respect to the publication of this information. 

15. The photograph of the complainant taken outside court was used to show her likeness in relation to the article, and did not show anything private in nature about the complainant. There was no breach of Clause 2 on this point. 

16. The complainant said that she had not been aware of the photographer’s presence, and so had been unable to ask him to desist from photographing her. However, the photograph had been taken in a public place, and the complainant had not alleged that the photographer had engaged in intimidation or harassment. There was no breach of Clause 3. 

17.  The Committee recognised that the selection of information for publication is a matter of editorial discretion, and publications are free to decide what articles to publish, so long as they abide by the Editors’ Code. In this instance, the publication’s decision to report on these court proceedings, which it was free to do, did not constitute harassment under the terms of the Code. 

18.  The complainant had also said that the article was inaccurate, as it had reported what the prosecution had alleged in court, which she did not accept was accurate.  However, the newspaper’s obligation was to ensure that it had accurately reported what was heard during proceedings. Also, where the article had clearly stated that the trial was still continuing, and the publication had published an update both on the original article and as a separate report to make readers aware that the complainant had been found not guilty, there was no breach of Clause 1.

Conclusions 

19. The complaint was not upheld.

Remedial action required 

20. N/A 

Date complaint received: 21/02/2018 

Date decision issued: 27/04/2018