The Kentish Gazette breached two clauses of the Editors' Code of Practice – on accuracy and the identification of victims of sexual offences – with a story it published about a woman who testified against disgraced publicist Max Clifford at his trial on sex offences, the Press Complaints Commission has held.
It also issued a warning about the need for newspapers to be able to produce contemporaneous notes when material such as quotations were questioned or challenged.
The woman complained that an article headlined "Woman's relief after PR guru Max Clifford found guilty of historic sex abuse charges" which appeared in the Kentish Gazette on 29 Apri, breached Clause 1 of the Code, covering accuracy, and identified her as a victim of sexual assault in breach of Clause 11.
The paid for weekly is published by the Kent Messenger Group and has a weekly circulation of around 10,000 in Canterbury and Whitstable.
The woman was a key prosecution witness at Max Clifford's trial, and testified that he had coerced her into performing a sex act on him.
The Kentish Gazette's article, which appeared shortly after Clifford was convicted of eight counts of indecent assault, said 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 piece also recounted aspects of her evidence and included her former profession, her age when she encountered Clifford, her age now, and the geographical area where she lived.
The woman said the article gave the false impression that she had given the newspaper an interview, but in fact, a reporter had arrived at her doorstep, and she had told him she did not want to comment, adding: "I have already stuck my head above the parapet."
She said 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".
Publication of the quotation attributed to her was misleading and deeply upsetting, and she experienced it as a violation.
The woman also said that as a result of the report, individuals who knew she was involved in the trial were able to connect her with the evidence she gave against Clifford, and the specific allegations she made. While other publications had referred to her former profession and her age 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 the woman 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 her to speak on the record, but 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.
The newspaper expressed sympathy for the woman, but could not accept that it had breached Clause 11 of the Editors' Code.
Her evidence – including her former occupation, when the alleged assault took place and her age at that time – had been widely published, the paper said. Readers of that coverage could easily calculate her current age from the information given. The only additional information in its article was the geographical area where she lived, and it had taken care to ensure that the reference was appropriately vague, covering an area which 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, the pape argued.
Upholding both complaints, the Commission said the complaint over accuracy was twofold: that the piece wrongly implied that the woman had given the newspaper comment which was intended for publication, and that in any case she was misquoted.
The Commission understood the complainant's concern that she was quoted at all, but was not in a position to reconcile conflicting positions as to whether her 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 – was made on a not-for-publication basis.
The second issue was different, it said, adding: "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."
On the Clause 11 complaint, the Commission said it understood the woman'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.
But 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.