Clauses Noted: 3, 4, 9
Publication: Hull Daily Mail
Mrs Sally Johnson complained to the Press Complaints Commission that two articles headlined "Police officer charged with sex attacks", and "Hull PC Mike Johnson admits sex assault on night out", published on the website of the Hull Daily Mail on 19 September 2011 and 17 July 2012 respectively, had identified her in breach of Clause 9 (Reporting of Crime) and Clause 3 (Privacy) of the Editors' Code of Practice.
The complaint was not upheld.
The articles under complaint were contemporaneous reports of legal proceedings against the complainant's husband, who had faced (and subsequently admitted) charges of sexual assault whilst a serving police officer. The Commission was able to consider the complaint about the 2011 article because, like the 2012 article, it remained online.
The complainant was concerned that in both reports the newspaper had identified her as a solicitor who worked for the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), although neither had identified her by name. The complainant said that the publication of this information had been highly intrusive and had unjustifiably focussed attention on her in connection with her husband's crime. She was irrelevant to the proceedings against her husband and had not been present during the incident.
The newspaper did not accept that it had identified the complainant: the reference had been deliberately vague. The CPS employed a large number of people at locations across the country, and the complainant's surname was common. It believed that only those with prior knowledge of the circumstances would have been able to connect it to the complainant. In any case, it argued that the complainant's profession was relevant to the case because higher standards of conduct could be expected from the complainant's husband because of the nature of her employment.
The Commission considered the newspaper's argument that the complainant's profession was "genuinely relevant" to the proceedings because it meant higher standards could be expected of her husband to be totally without merit. This justification was particularly implausible given the fact that her husband had been a serving police officer at the time of the crime, a role which in itself demands high standards of conduct.
The central issue for the Commission's consideration was therefore whether the complainant had been "identified" by the publication of this information within the terms of Clause 9 (Reporting of crime).
The Commission understood the complainant's desire to avoid intrusive attention stemming from her husband's crime. Nonetheless, as she had herself acknowledged, publications are generally entitled to identify those concerned in court proceedings - including, as in this case, by publishing their names and photographs. It is inevitable that this will enable members of the community with prior knowledge of the individuals concerned to connect innocent family members with the proceedings. For this reason, Clause 9 cannot reasonably be interpreted as imposing an obligation on publications to avoid the publication of any information that might contribute to the identification of family members in such circumstances: "identification" must mean something more.
The coverage under complaint had not identified the complainant by name, and nor had she been photographed; the nature of her work had been mentioned, in general terms, in the text of the articles, but beyond this there had been no further reference to her. While the Commission welcomed the newspaper's removal of the reference to the complainant from its coverage as a positive response to her concerns, on balance it concluded that this reference had not "identified" her in a manner that breached the terms of Clause 9.
In addition, the Commission did not consider this reference to the complainant's role as a public servant represented an unjustified intrusion into her private life in this context. The complaints under Clause 3 and Clause 9 were not upheld.
The complainant also raised concerns on behalf of her husband that the newspaper had breached Clause 4 (Harassment) of the Code.
The complaint was not upheld.
The complainant explained that, on two occasions over the course of the proceedings, the newspaper's journalist had contacted her husband via his mobile telephone seeking his comments on the case; he had previously been in professional contact with her husband and had retained his contact details. While her husband had spoken to the journalist early on in the process, a subsequent contact had caused upset and led him to change his mobile number. Her husband believed that the use of his contact details in this context was inappropriate and unprofessional, and that the journalist had attempted to exploit a previous working relationship to gain his confidence.
The newspaper explained that the journalist had since left the newspaper so could not respond to the allegations. In any event, it did not accept that the actions outlined amounted to harassment. It believed that it had been entirely appropriate - and indeed, responsible - for the reporter to have contacted the complainant's husband at the different stages of the case.
While it noted the complainant's husband's concerns, the Commission did not agree that the use of the complainant's husband's details in this instance for the legitimate journalistic purpose of obtaining his comment on the allegations against him constituted harassment under the terms of Clause 4. While the complainant had contended that the contact was potentially "exploitative", there was no suggestion that the journalist had acted aggressively toward the complainant's husband, nor that he had continued to make contact after a request to desist. The complaint was not upheld.
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