Clauses Noted: 3, 11
Publication: Sunday Life
A woman complained to the Press Complaints Commission that an article headlined "‘Sorry' victim's begging letter to her rapist", published in the Sunday Life on 29 January 2012, was intrusive in breach of Clause 3 (Privacy) of the Editors' Code of Practice and contributed to her identification as a victim of sexual assault in breach of Clause 11 (Victims of sexual assault) of the Code.
The complaint was upheld.
The complainant had been a victim of Jason King, who was convicted of 58 offences including nine rapes involving girls between the ages of 12 and 15; her diary had been used as evidence against him at trial. Years later, the complainant had written to Mr King explaining that she "didn't want [him] to go to jail", would "never forgive" herself for her role in his conviction, and had considered saying that her diary was a "lie". She also asked to visit him in prison. The newspaper had obtained the handwritten letter and showed it to the complainant's mother for comment before publishing it, obscuring only her name and address.
The complainant said the newspaper had failed to respect her private life: how she felt about Mr King, and what she had written to him, were private matters. She had undergone lengthy therapy, and the newspaper should have been aware of the article's potential to cause further harm. The complainant also said that the article had contained sufficient information - including her current age, her age at the time of the attack, and a sample of her handwriting - to identify her as a victim of sexual assault.
While the newspaper greatly regretted the distress caused to the complainant, it considered that the letter indicated that she was still "infatuated" by a man who had manipulated her as a schoolgirl. The coverage had highlighted how Mr King continued to have a psychological hold over his victims, which was a matter of overwhelming public interest.
It did not accept that it had been intrusive to show the letter to the complainant's mother. She had already been aware of Mr King's crimes and had made strenuous efforts to stop her daughter contacting him; she was "the one person who absolutely needed to know" about the letter. It said that the letter would have become public knowledge in any case, because Mr King had been "bragging" about it. It had been suggested to the newspaper that he intended to use the letter to launch an appeal, although the newspaper had concluded that this was unlikely.
The newspaper did not accept a breach of Clause 11; it said the article had contained no information about the complainant beyond what had been reported at the time of the trial.
This was an unusual complaint under Clause 3 (Privacy), because the complainant had not been named and - notwithstanding the complaint under Clause 11 (Victims of sexual assault) - would not be identifiable to the vast majority of the newspaper's readers.
Under the terms of Clause 3, "everyone is entitled to respect for his or her private and family life, home, health and correspondence". The complainant's feelings towards Mr King were extremely intimate matters, so much so that the existence of the correspondence was unknown even to her family. Regardless of whether she was identifiable, she retained a right to privacy with respect to such correspondence. The question was whether a countervailing public interest justified publication.
There was an undeniable public interest in exploring the deep and lasting effects of sexual abuse, which the complainant's letter illuminated vividly. Balanced against this was her extreme vulnerability: she had been the child victim of extremely serious sexual offences and suffered ongoing trauma as a result.
The reproduction of the letter and the public exposure of the complainant's private feelings had evidently caused severe distress. In the Commission's view, the newspaper could have achieved its aim - to expose the extent of Mr King's continuing hold on one of his victims - through less intrusive means. It concluded that the reproduction of the handwritten letter, in full, represented an unjustified intrusion into the complainant's private life without consent in breach of Clause 3.
In addition, before publication the newspaper had showed the complainant's letter to her mother. The Commission acknowledged the newspaper's position that it had acted to protect the complainant. Nonetheless, the complainant was an adult, with rights to privacy even within her own family. While troubling, the letter did not reveal any immediate danger to her health. The Commission concluded that the decision to show the letter to the complainant's mother without her consent had represented a further breach of Clause 3.
Clause 11 (Victims of sexual assault) states that "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". The article had included the complainant's current age; her age at the time of the attack; the general area in which she lives; and an image of the letter, which showed her distinctive handwriting. Again, it was the publication of the letter that tipped the balance. This was a regrettable, and avoidable, breach of Clause 11.
The complainant raised additional concerns under Clause 1 (Accuracy) and Clause 4 (Harassment).
The complaints were not upheld.
The complainant said that the article had misrepresented the emotional reaction both she and her mother had had to the emergence of the letter. In particular, her mother - who had authorised the complainant to act on her behalf - had not been "in tears" during her conversation with the reporter, "devastated" or "heartbroken". She also complained that the journalist had approached her mother at the family home in an intimidating manner in breach of Clause 4 (Harassment).
The newspaper stood by its published account of the reporter's conversations with the complainant and her mother, including the claim that her mother had been moved to tears by the letter. It denied having harassed the complainant's mother. The journalist had knocked on the door of the family home once and received no response. Believing that no one was home, he had returned later and had been invited inside after identifying himself. The atmosphere during this 5-minute encounter had been relaxed, and the reporter had spoken once more to the complainant's mother on the telephone.
Clause 1 (Accuracy) sets out that the press must take care not to publish inaccurate information and requires significant errors to be corrected, promptly and with due prominence. The complainant's mother disputed the newspaper's account of her reaction to the letter. The newspaper maintained that she had appeared deeply upset; this was reflected in her comments to the reporter, which did not appear to be in dispute. While the reporter's description of the complainant's mother's reaction reflected to an extent his own personal impressions, which he had been entitled to present to readers, the claim that she had been "in tears" was not a matter of interpretation. Ultimately, however, the Commission was not in a position to reconcile the conflict of evidence on this point. It was unable to establish a breach of Clause 1.
Turning to the complaint under Clause 4 (Harassment), the Commission noted that the complainant had argued that her mother was intimidated by the reporter's visit. The newspaper said its reporter had been welcomed into the house and conducted a friendly discussion, at the conclusion of which he had left. It was accepted that the complainant's mother had invited the reporter in and provided comments on the letter; he had not been asked to desist, as he had only entered the house once and telephoned once. While the Commission accepted that it would have been upsetting for the complainant's mother to have been confronted with information about the complainant's letter, it could not establish a breach of Clause 4 on this account.
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