AddThis SmartLayers

Watchdog rejects harassment claim against regional daily

A regional daily has been cleared of harassment and breach of privacy claims over its reporting of the case of a police officer who admitted sex assault charges.

PC Mike Johnson admitted charges of sex assault while serving as a police officer with the story reported on the Hull Daily Mail website last July.

His wife Sally Johnson complained to the Press Complaints Commission over the story and a previous one relating to the charges, claiming they had breached her privacy by identifying her as a solicitor with the Crown Prosecution Service.

Ms Johnson also claimed on behalf of her husband that the paper had harassed him in breach of Clause 4 of the editor’s code – but the watchdog rejected both complaints in a ruling published today.

The PCC said the articles were contemporaneous reports of legal proceedings.  Neither article identified Ms Johnson by name, but they mentioned the nature of her work.

However Ms Johnson claimed the publication of this information had been “highly intrusive” and had unjustifiably focused attention on her in connection with her husband’s crime.

The newspaper did not accept that it had identified the complainant saying the reference had been deliberately vague.

It also argued that Ms Johnson’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, although the PCC dismissed this argument as “totally without merit.”

The Commission said in its ruling:  “The central issue for the Commission’s consideration was 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.”

Ms Johnson also claimed that the newspaper’s journalist had contacted her husband via his mobile telephone seeking his comments on the case, saying this amounted to harassment.

The journalist in question, who has since left the paper, had previously been in professional contact with her husband and had retained his contact details.

Ms Johnson said 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 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.

The PPC ruled:  “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.”