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Law Column: Journalistic standards, IPSO, and the new Editors Code

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IPSO staff were busy in December, and the Organisation’s drive to improve journalistic standards shows no signs of slowing down in the new year.

With the end of 2017 in sight, the regulator began the run up to Christmas by announcing the launch of the new IPSO mark, which was described in the news release as a way of showing the title or website is “a trusted, quality brand committed to the best professional standards”.

The following week saw the publication of some interesting remarks about the recently launched arbitration scheme. And in the week before Christmas, new members of IPSO’s Standards Investigation Panel were unveiled, and revisions to the Editors Code were published.

The policy of improving standards has continued into the New Year. As already reported by HTFP, last week IPSO issued new guides for the public on court reporting; reporting of deaths and inquests; and how journalists use information from social media.

All these developments are important, but for working journalists, the changes to the Editors Code are probably the most likely to impact upon their day to day work.

As ever, the changes to the Code (which took effect on January 1st) represent evolution, not revolution.

Three of the Code’s clauses have been amended:

1.  Clause 2 – Privacy

Under old wording of clause 2, when an allegation of infringement of privacy was made, publishers were entitled to take into account “a complainant’s own public disclosure of information”.

The new wording is more comprehensive: “In considering an individual’s reasonable expectation of privacy, account will be taken of the complainant’s own public disclosures of information and the extent to which the material complained about is already in the public domain or will become so”.

In the words of the Code Committee, this revised wording “makes it clear that the extent to which material is in the public domain, or will become so, is a factor which may be considered in Clause 2 complaints”.

They also felt that this wording will help “address the challenge of regulating global digital publications that are owned and domiciled in the UK”.

Most journalists will probably feel that on a day to day basis, not much has changed. But the clarity that the new wording offers in the modern world of publishing will surely be welcomed, especially by those working for digital titles.

2  Clause 9 – Reporting of Crime

Two changes have been made to Clause 9.

First, children are now defined as those who are under the age of 18 – which is probably interesting only to pedantic lawyers who know that in law, “children” are defined as being 14 or younger and “young persons” are defined as being 17 or younger. In practice, nothing will change.

Second, a new provision has been inserted into Clause 9, which is designed to close a loophole which most reputable publishers do not exploit, but which the Code Committee said some newspapers had relied on in exceptional circumstances.

It’s well known that a defendant appearing in the Youth Court may not be identified, because that’s the law. But this automatic anonymity is only triggered by the commencement of the Youth Court hearing.  No automatic right to anonymity exists before then, even on arrest.

The Code Committee has moved to close the loophole by amending clause 9 so that “generally”, children who have been arrested should not be named unless the individual’s name is already in the public domain; or those aged 16 and 17 have given their consent; or the parents/guardians/responsible adults of anyone under the age of 16 have given their consent.

(This new restriction does not restrict the right to name juveniles who appear in a Crown Court, or whose anonymity is lifted).

This is quite a shift from the restrictions imposed by law, something which the Committee recognises: “This is an example of where the Code goes further to protect vulnerable people than the law requires”.

And the reason for the change? According to the Committee: “Youth justice campaigners, including the Standing Committee for Youth Justice, the National Association for Youth Justice and the Children’s Rights Alliance for England, called for a change in the Code to protect these children”.

3.  Clause 11 – victims of sexual assault

The wording of the former clause 11 was always slightly problematic.

The issue was that as well as being prohibited from identifying the victims of sexual assault (as also required by the law), publishers were also prohibited from publishing “material likely to contribute to such identification”.  This wording was not entirely clear, was not consistent with the law, and had the potential to inhibit Court reporting.

As a result, the revised clause now makes the obligation crystal clear: The press must not identify or publish material likely to lead to the identification of a victim of sexual assault”.

The exception to this prohibition remains in place and is unchanged: “……unless there is adequate justification and [publishers] are legally free to do so”. 

So how should those journalists who have to work with the Code on a daily basis, view these changes?

In all likelihood, there’s nothing which should cause any concern to reputable journalists. The new provisions eliminate a number of ambiguities, and by bringing the Code in line with the law, or actually going beyond it, the public interest is undoubtedly being served.

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