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Law Column: Welcome new guidance on reporting of sexual offences

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In the wake of the #MeToo era, the reporting of sexual offences is high on the media’s agenda, so IPSO’s new guidance on the subject is very much to be welcomed.

The new guidance supplements Clause 7 (children in sex cases) and Clause 11 (victims of sexual assault) of the Editor’s Code of Practice.

Its fundamental aim is to protect victims’ anonymity by providing editors and journalists with a framework with which to work.  The protection of sexual offence victims identify is paramount, not only because it’s the law, but also because of the technology and social media world we now live in.

The guidance includes particular warnings that journalists should carefully consider how material they publish is going to be presented online and via social media, to prevent the victim from being identified, including via jigsaw identification or providing information on location.

Jigsaw identification is something that is of particular concern to IPSO, especially with the vast number of reader comments that are attracted to social media and online publishing. The guidance also reminds journalists that all victims of sexual offences, including children, are automatically guaranteed anonymity for life from the moment they make the allegations, and remains in force even where the allegation is withdrawn.

Offences that fall under the sexual offences law include rape, sexual assault, exposure and taking an indecent photograph of a child. Anonymity is also extended to victims/alleged victims of female genital mutilation and, in some circumstances, of ‘human trafficking’ and modern slavery.

The guidance also explicitly says that although the Code does not set out the language to be used when reporting sexual offences, “care should be taken not to choose terminology which sensationalises the offences, apportions blame, or implies that the victims consented to the sexual act.”

IPSO warns journalists that even posting a link on a social media platform to a report on active/ongoing criminal proceedings triggers a legal duty to take reasonable care when doing so, under the Contempt of Court Act 1980. It is the journalist’s responsibility to consider how best to warn social media users that they must not post related comments that may prejudice the investigation or a fair trial. A failure to provide a warning could be construed as evidence of a lack of reasonable care. Perhaps one of the safest options is to turn off reader comments where appropriate.

This further guidance was developed after discussions with organisations which provide support to survivors of sexual offences and domestic violence, including Rape Crisis, Solace Women’s Aid, LimeCulture and Women’s Aid. Although a number of individuals have waived their anonymity in the wake of the #MeToo movement, it is imperative to be alive to the right of anonymity for sexual offence victims.

The guidance also includes information for survivors of sexual offences, which is designed to help people understand the rules which newspapers and magazines regulated by IPSO must follow when reporting on sexual offences. It informs them about what to expect from journalists, empowering them to speak to the media should they wish to, and to know where to go for help if they do not.

On this point, Nathalie McDermott, CEO at On Road Media, said: “This guidance has come at such an important time for survivors who are speaking out in greater numbers since the #MeToo movement started. Most of them are doing so without support, without knowing their rights or how journalists work, or how to share their expertise and experiences on their own terms.”

“We also know the difference sensitive reporting can make to survivors reading an article about abuse, and we welcome this support for journalists who are covering these sensitive issues in an increasingly time pressured work environment.”

This new guidance will be a welcomed addition; by providing essential guidelines to journalists and editors, it will hopefully ensure and help reporting on sexual offences.

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