Newspaper fined after sex abuse victim's identity is uncovered

The Kent Messenger Group has been fined £1,000 and ordered to pay £2,500 compensation to a victim of childhood sexual abuse. Legal costs on top are expected to bring the total bill to around £10,000.

The fine and compensation order came as a result of a court report, which, it was alleged, was likely to lead to the identification of the victim of the abuse, contrary to the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Act 1992.

The group argued that in the Medway Messenger report, which was at the centre of the case, there was no hint of the woman's identity and at face value nothing which could lead a reader of the paper to identify her.

But Medway Magistrates' Court, which imposed the fine and made the compensation order, heard that the identity of the victim came to light as a result of "detective work" by an old friend of the victim who read the report and on the basis of her personal knowledge then questioned the woman about whether it was her.

Joanne Cash, counsel for the KM Group, told magistrates: "My clients have apologised profusely for publishing something which led to her identification. There was no intention for any identification to take place and it is a matter of deep regret that they find themselves in this position.

"This was a very difficult case. They have followed good practice guidelines set down by the Press Complaints Commission. They take very seriously their responsibility. "All reasonable steps had been taken to make sure identification would not occur and credit should be given for a guilty plea. They have put first and foremost their concerns for the woman.

"It is accepted that newspapers are the eyes and ears of the public. They have a duty to publish details of cases that could affect the public."

Simon Irwin, editorial director of the KM Group, told Press Gazette this week: "If this were to become an on-going trend it is too horrible to think of."

He is now writing to the director of public prosecutions to question the policy implication in the decision that was taken to prosecute.

He said: "Even after our editor had been interviewed by police I would have hoped that the CPS would have taken the view that there was no direct identification here.

"The decision to plead guilty was not one taken lightly because, in my opinion, we adhered to the PCC editors' code of practice in respect of the identification of victims. We took the decision primarily to spare the victim of the horrible crime in the report the ordeal of giving evidence in court.

"We had offered to take her evidence ‘as read', but it became clear to me that there was still a risk that the CPS might have called her to the stand.

"It is far from clear that we would have lost this case if we had chosen to contest it since the identification of the victim involved some ‘detective' work by a friend after our initial publication of the facts of the case. We did not directly identify the victim in any way.

"We will still be performing our public duty by covering sex cases in court."

Reporter Keith Hunt (pictured), who wrote the original story, said: "I have been covering courts for many years and I have never encountered anything like this before.

"It means that sex abuse cases, where the defendant and victim are known to each other, will have to be scrutinised even more carefully and could lead to them being reduced to the bare minimum, or not even reported at all.

"I hope that clearer guidelines are forthcoming very quickly."

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