Ruling

20796-17 A woman v The Argus (Brighton)

    • Date complaint received

      28th June 2018

    • Outcome

      No breach - after investigation

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy, 11 Victims of sexual assault, 2 Privacy, 3 Harassment

Decision of the Complaints Committee 20796-17 A woman v The Argus (Brighton)

Summary of complaint

1. A woman complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Argus (Brighton) 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 “assaulted a man after performing a strip dance for him” and “wasted police time when she reported that she was assaulted and sexually assaulted.” The article detailed the circumstances of the incident as they were heard in court, said that she had offered to perform a sex act on the man, and stated that the trial was continuing. The article included two photographs of the complaint when she appeared on the TV talent show, and another photograph of her outside court.

3. The article was also published online. The online article was substantially the same as the article that appeared in print.

4. 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.

5. She also said that the photograph of her that had been taken outside court had been taken in circumstances of harassment. She said that she had come out of a side door of the court late at night and had spotted a photographer on the public footpath beside the court. She said that when she saw the photographer she began to run in the opposite direction and ended in a dead end alley beside the court. She said that at this point, the photographer caught up with her and said that as she tried to cover her face, the photographer stood over her and took a number of photographs.

6. The complainant also raised concerns 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 was, therefore, inaccurate. She also said it was inaccurate for the article to state that she had said she would perform a sex act for the man.

7. The newspaper did not accept that it had breached the Code. It said that the article was an accurate report of court proceedings and said that there was no basis in law to prevent identification of the complainant in relation to this trial. The newspaper commented that while the Sexual Offences Act confers automatic anonymity on alleged victims of certain sexual offences, the same law also provides for circumstances where this restriction does not apply, specifically reporting on other criminal legal proceedings separate to sexual offence proceedings. The newspaper said that this exception typically concerns the situation where a person is charged with perverting the course of justice or wasting police time, by allegedly making a false accusation of a sexual offence. The newspaper maintained that the law recognised the importance of reporting open judicial proceedings and identifying the defendant in such cases, and therefore believed it was justified in naming the complainant in these circumstances, especially as these proceedings involved a serious allegation of an attempt to abuse the criminal process itself.

8. The newspaper strongly denied that the photograph of the complainant taken outside court had been taken in circumstances of harassment. The newspaper said that the photograph had been provided by a freelance photographer that the newspaper used regularly. It said that he had taken the photograph of the complainant as she was leaving the court building from a public place, not the court precinct. The newspaper strongly denied that the photographer had pursued or followed the complainant into an alley and confirmed that the photographer had only taken one photographer of the complainant on this occasion, which was published in the article, and not a series of photographs alleged by the complainant.

9. The newspaper said that the article had accurately reported what had been heard in court on this occasion, and had accurately reported the prosecution’s position as claims. It said that where the article made clear that the trial was continuing, the article did not suggest that the complainant had been found guilty. When the trial did conclude, the newspaper published an article, both in print and online, making clear that the complainant was cleared.

Relevant Code provisions

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

10. 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 does not apply to the reporting of 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. 

11. 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. The allegation of sexual assault was central to these ongoing proceedings, and 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.

12. The complainant had recounted her experience with a photographer outside court, which she believed amounted to harassment under the Editors’ Code. While the Committee were concerned about the behaviour the complainant had referred to, the newspaper had confirmed that it had only received one photograph of the complainant on that day, and the photographer had assured the publication that this was the only photograph he had taken. This photograph showed only the complainant leaving the court, and did not appear to be taken on court property or in close proximity to the complainant. The Committee carefully considered the accounts of the complainant and the freelance photographer and, in light of the conflict between the two parties, it was unable to find a breach of Clause 3.

13. 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 separate to the criminal proceedings relating to the alleged sexual assault. 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.

14. 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.

15. The complainant had also said that the article was inaccurate, as it had reported what the prosecution had alleged in court, including the claim that she had offered to perform a sex act, which she did not accept was accurate.  However, the complainant did not dispute that these claims had been made by the prosecution during the trial. 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

16. The complaint was not upheld.

Remedial action required

17. N/A

Date complaint received: 17/12/2017

Date decision issued: 01/06/2018