Clauses Noted: 4
Publication: The Sun
A woman complained to the Press Complaints Commission that The Sun had harassed her in breach of Clause 4 (Harassment) of the Editors’ Code of Practice.
The complaint was upheld.
The complainant was the victim of a sexual assault by Max Clifford and a witness for the prosecution at his trial. She complained that the newspaper had harassed her by attempting to contact her on four occasions for her comment on the case, despite requests to desist made on her behalf.
The complainant said a reporter from the newspaper had first visited her house in April 2013; he had been met at the door by a friend of hers, who had asked him to leave. In June 2013, a second reporter had called the home and spoken to her husband; he took the reporter’s contacts but suggested that she would not comment until after the trial. On 26 February 2014, a reporter visited the complainant’s home. The complainant said she opened the door and confirmed her identity; she then asked a police officer in attendance to speak to the reporter. The officer confirmed to the PCC that he had informed the reporter of the prior approaches and that “she did not wish to speak to [the newspaper] at any time”. On 13 March 2014 another reporter visited the house shortly after the complainant testified. He left at the complainant’s request.
While the newspaper regretted that the complainant had been distressed by the visits, it maintained that approaches for comment were standard practice for a newsworthy case, and did not accept that they amounted to harassment.
The newspaper said that during the first approach, the reporter had received the impression that he was at the wrong address. It provided a recording of the second contact, which it described as friendly and vague. There had been no request to desist; the husband said that until the “matter was resolved probably [the complainant would not speak]”, and that it would be best if the reporter “held off”. The third approach was 8 months later. By the reporter’s account, a woman (the complainant) who opened the door had not identified herself; an unidentified man had then told the reporter to leave, using a phrase that it summarised as, “don’t show your face here again”. The newspaper said that had it understood that he was a police officer, it would not have returned. As it was, however, a further approach was made several weeks later, at which point the complainant stated that she was being harassed.
The newspaper maintained that it was only on the final approach that a reporter knowingly spoke to the complainant. In any case, it said that at this stage the complainant had given evidence, warranting a renewed approach. Individuals in the complainant’s position often changed their mind about commenting; indeed, the complainant had later spoken to another newspaper. Nonetheless, it offered to apologise privately to the complainant.
Protecting vulnerable individuals from unwanted and intrusive press contacts is among the most important functions of the Editors’ Code. Four separate attempts were made to contact the complainant, and the Commission considered carefully the nature of each incident.
No desist request had been made during the first approach. The recording of the second approach demonstrated that the complainant’s husband had said that, until the trial had finished, the complainant “probably” would not want to speak to the newspaper. On balance, the Commission concluded that this did not constitute a request for the newspaper not to make further approaches. Therefore the third approach, eight months later, did not raise a breach of Clause 4.
There was some dispute about the third approach, including about whether the complainant had identified herself. The newspaper had accepted, however, that the reporter had been told not to “show his face” again. The Commission was satisfied that this was a clear request to desist. Although the policeman had not identified himself, there were no substantive grounds for the reporter to doubt that he was representing the complainant.
While individuals do sometimes change their minds about speaking to the press, this could not justify persistence in this context, particularly given the complainant’s vulnerable position. Similarly, while the complainant had later spoken to another newspaper, this did not affect the validity of the request – to the contrary, it bore out her husband’s prediction that she would not comment until after the verdict. The fourth visit from the newspaper therefore breached the terms of Clause 4 of the Code.
The complaint was upheld.
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