Child sex-abuse cases: Keeping reports safe

The lead story in The Spectator’s 9 July issue was a report on Roger Took, an art historian who in February was found guilty of 17 crimes relating to child abuse, including abusing his two step-grandchildren and possession of 260 indecent photos of children.

Journalist Charlotte Metcalf spoke to Took’s wife Pat, who explained the impact of the abuse on her family; her daughters ‘Anne’and ‘Jennifer’and grandchildren ‘Cathy’and ‘Grace”.

At the end of the print article there was a disclaimer saying the article was written with the cooperation of Pat’s family, but to protect the identity of individual family members, their names, though not Pat’s, had been changed.

What are the guidelines that determine the reporting of cases of child abuse?

According to the PCC code, which reflects the law in this instance, in cases of child abuse ‘the press must not, even if legally free to do so, identify children under 16 who are victims or witnesses in cases involving sex offences”.

Aside from actually naming a victim, anything that could identify the child to any member of the public – which in legal terms, means anyone who is not the victim – is not permitted. The guidelines also advise ‘the word ‘incest’ must not be used where a child victim might be identified’and ‘care must be taken that nothing in the report implies the relationship between the accused and the child”.

In December 2006, the Sunderland Echo was fined £2,500 and ordered to pay £2,500 in compensation when its description of a victim in a court report led to their identification. The paper had withheld the name but the description and detail given in the report was enough.

Mike Dodd, legal editor for PA, says that journalists need to turn off their instinct to give as much detail as possible in such cases: ‘If the crime happened in the family home for example, this may tell the reader about the relationship between the plaintiff and the accused so you might well need to simply leave it out.

‘When you give the name of the accused, then giving the age of the victim may lead readers to their identity; so it might be better to just say ‘schoolgirl/boy’ or ‘teenager’. In some cases there might be an argument for not publishing the report at all, to avoid any connections being made. On some occasions even a date and address, taken together, can be enough to cause real problems.”

While The Spectator article changed the victims’ names, it made clear that the two step-grandchildren were victims, and this could easily lead to identification by the many people who knew of Took.

The only occasion where this is permitted is with consent from the victim or, in the case of under 16s, consent from the victim’s parents.

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