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Home   Canterbury   News   Article

Identity and accuracy ruling given by PCC

14 August 2014
by KentOnline reporter

A woman complained to the Press Complaints Commission that an article headlined “Woman’s relief after PR guru Max Clifford found guilty of historic sex abuse charges”, published by the Kentish Gazette on 29 April 2014, was misleading in breach of Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice.

The complainant was further concerned that the article had identified her 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 key prosecution witness in the trial of Max Clifford and gave evidence that he had coerced her into performing a sex act on him.

The article, published shortly after he was convicted of eight counts of indecent assault, reported that she had spoken briefly to the newspaper from her home, saying, “I have already stuck my head above the parapet. It’s been an ordeal and I’m just relieved he has been convicted and it’s over”.

The article went on to recount aspects of her evidence and included the following details about the complainant: her former profession; the age she had been when she encountered Max Clifford; her current age; and the geographical area in which she lived.

The complainant considered that the article gave the false impression that she had given an interview to the newspaper. In fact, a reporter had arrived at her doorstep, and she had informed him that she did not want to comment, explaining, “I have already stuck my head above the parapet”. She had not said “it’s been an ordeal and I’m just relieved he had been convicted and it’s over”. Rather, as she shut the door on the reporter, he had said “it must have been an ordeal”, to which she had replied, “you have no idea”. The publication of the quotation attributed to her was misleading and deeply upsetting; she experienced it as a violation.

The complainant said that as a result of the report, individuals who knew that she had been involved in the court case had been able to connect her with the evidence she had given against Mr Clifford, and the specific allegations she had made.

While other publications had referred to her former profession and the age she had been at the time of the events, none had published her current age or location. This article had drawn all the information together in one place.

The newspaper said that the complainant had initially said she did not want to make a statement but had then briefly discussed the case. The reporter was adamant that he had persuaded the complainant to speak on the record, but unfortunately had not taken a note of the conversation.

While the newspaper considered that the exchange had been so brief that it had been unnecessary, it recognised that a note should have been taken as a record of the complainant’s comments, and said its staff had been reminded of the importance of comprehensive note-taking.

It had removed the online article on receipt of the complaint and offered to publish an apology explaining that the complainant disputed the accuracy of the quotation and that she maintained that it had been published without her consent.

While the newspaper expressed sympathy to the complainant, it could not accept a breach of Clause 11. Her evidence – including her former occupation, when the alleged assault took place and her age at that time – had been widely published. Readers of that coverage could easily calculate her current age from the information given.

The only additional information in its article, therefore, was the geographical area in which she lived, and it had taken care to ensure that it was appropriately vague in its reference; the area it had referenced was home to more than 150,000 people.

Those who knew of the complainant’s involvement in the trial would have been able to identify her from the coverage in the national newspapers.

Adjudication

The complaint in regard to the accuracy of the article was twofold: that it wrongly implied that the complainant had provided comment to the newspaper that was intended for publication, and that in any case she had been misquoted.

While the Commission understood the complainant’s concern that she had been quoted at all, regrettably it was not in a position to reconcile conflicting positions as to whether the complainant’s comment that she had “already stuck [her] head above the parapet” – which she had accepted saying, albeit in the context of her refusal to speak to the newspaper – had been made on a not-for-publication basis.

The second issue was different. When disputes arise over whether a publication has accurately reported comments made to one of its reporters, the newspaper has a positive obligation to provide evidence substantiating its position, such as a contemporaneous note or audio recording.

In this instance, there was no such record. The newspaper was not able to demonstrate that it had taken care over the accuracy of the reported comments, and as such, the Commission found a breach of Clause 1 (i) of the Editors’ Code of Practice.

Moving on to consider the issue of remedy, the Commission noted the context: the complainant had been a witness in a high-profile trial in which she had given evidence of an alleged assault on her by Mr Clifford. Given the sensitivity of the situation, the requirement to take care to ensure the accuracy of the complainant’s comments was of the greatest importance; while the comments attributed to her were brief, the subject was an extremely distressing and intimate one, as the reporter was well aware.

The Commission welcomed the newspaper’s offer to apologise for any misunderstanding; however, it concluded that, in all the circumstances of the situation, the initial breach could not be remedied. It therefore upheld the complaint under Clause 1.

While the Commission understood the complainant’s concern that friends and family who were already aware, from her own disclosures, of her involvement in the trial had learned details of her experiences from the coverage, it noted that the issue it had to determine was different: under the terms of Clause 11, it had to decide more broadly whether the published detail was “likely to contribute to [her] identification” as a victim of sexual assault. On balance, it concluded that, taken together, the information contained in the article was likely to contribute to her identification. The complaint under Clause 11 was upheld.

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