Clauses Noted: 1, 3, 7
Publication: Evening Standard
Ms D Robson of London E5 complained that an article headlined "The council officer told her friend: Don't use Trotter as your babysitter. But the public was never warned" and a leading article headlined "The Shame of Hackney" published in the Evening Standard on January 21 1998 contained inaccuracies in breach of Clause 1 (Accuracy), identified her in breach of Clause 3 (Privacy) and suggested that her child was a possible victim of sexual abuse in breach of Clause 7 (Children in sex cases) of the Code of Practice
The article followed publication of the Barratt Report into Hackney Council's inaction in dealing with a paedophile social worker, Mark Trotter. It identified the complainant as the woman highlighted in the report, but not named, who had received a warning not to use Trotter as a babysitter. The leading article included the complainant in a list of people which the paper thought should be called to account.
The complainant said that by identifying her the paper had intruded into her privacy and she thought that Clause 7 had been breached by suggesting that her child may have been sexually abused. She said that her inclusion in the pieces was not justified: she had not been a councillor at the time and she had not known either that the warning had not been extended to others or that no action was being taken by the Social Services department. Furthermore, it was anachronistic to criticise people about their dealings with paedophilia more than ten years ago as understanding about the subject had changed so much. She objected to the journalist asking her questions on the subject when she was with one of her young children.
The complainant also raised complaints about accuracy. She objected to a perceived implication in both pieces that she had acquiesced in political corruption in Hackney and that her lack of action after the warning meant that no action at all was taken over Mark Trotter. She added that the Barratt report had not ascribed blame to anyone for the affair and she thought that by criticising named individuals the Barratt Report had been distorted by the paper.
The newspaper said that the Barratt inquiry was established in the first place largely as a result of the newspaper's own inquiries and that while there was no evidence of a cover-up the report did confirm incompetence, impropriety and a divisive political culture. It was a matter of legitimate public interest to identify the complainant as she was a former councillor (who was to become a councillor again after the warning) and a member of the local Labour Party who was in receipt of privileged information which had been denied to others. The article had made clear that the complainant was not a councillor at the time of the warning but this fact did not exempt her from her public responsibilities. In any case it was merely common sense to suggest that the complainant could have at least made enquiries about what the council was doing regarding Trotter. The editor stood by the leading article which he said accurately reflected the fact that the complainant had not explained why the warning was not extended to others: after all, the complainant had refused to comment to reporters when given the opportunity to do so. The article had not suggested that the complainant was corrupt and the editor denied that there was any implication that her child was a victim of abuse.
It was not for the Commission to come to any view regarding the matters covered in the Barratt report. Indeed, any complaint that the report had been distorted would have been a matter for the author(s) of the report to make. The Commission's task was to determine whether the identification of the complainant, which had not been made in the report, was an invasion of her privacy, and whether the complainant had shown that the references to her were inaccurate or misleading.
The Commission noted that the newspaper had been closely involved in investigating matters relating to the subject of the Barratt report for a period of years. Although the report had apparently not found any evidence of a cover-up, it was clearly the newspaper's view, robustly expressed in the leading article, that nonetheless responsibility should be apportioned. The Commission noted that the Barratt report had mentioned the existence of an anonymous woman who had been warned not to use Mark Trotter as a babysitter and therefore placed the circumstances of the complainant's involvement in the case, if not the complainant's name, into the public domain. The Commission considered that there was a public interest in identifying the complainant as this woman, given her past responsibilities on the council and her close association with the political party which controlled the council at the time. The Commission noted that the complainant had been given an opportunity to comment on the story but that she had not wished to do so, and considered that the newspaper had fulfilled its obligations in putting the matter to her for a comment prior to publication. The Commission did not therefore find that it was inaccurate for the leading article to have said that the complainant had not explained why the information regarding Mark Trotter was not shared. With regard to the complaint under Clause 7 the Commission noted that the name, age, and sex of the child had not been given and neither had the article stated how many children the complainant had at the time that the warning was given. There had therefore been no breach of the Code which states that the child must not be identified.
The complaints were rejected.
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