PCC rejects privacy and harassment claims against Hull Daily Mail

The wife of a police officer who admitted sex assault offences has had two complaints to the Press Complaints Commission over stories published on the Hull Daily Mail website rejected.

Sally Johnson approached the press watchdog over two articles: one headlined "Police officer charged with sex attacks", published on 19 September 2011, and another headlined "Hull PC Mike Johnson admits sex assault on night out" published on 17 July 2012

She claimed they identified her in breach of Clause 9 (Reporting of Crime) and Clause 3 (Privacy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice.

Both articles were contemporaneous reports of legal proceedings against her husband PC Mike Johnson, who admitted charges of sexual assault whilst a serving police officer.

In today’s adjudication, the PCC said Johnson was concerned that in both reports she was identified as a solicitor who worked for the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS).

Crucially, however, neither article identified her by name.

Johnson argued that publication of this information alone was “highly intrusive” and had “unjustifiably focussed attention on her” in connection with her husband's crime, despite the fact she was “irrelevant to the proceedings against her husband”.

The paper did not accept it had identified Johnson, noting that references to her had been left “deliberately vague”.

It noted that the CPS “employed a large number of people at locations across the country, and the complainant's surname was common”.

Only those with prior knowledge of the circumstances would have been able to connect it to the complainant, it said.

The paper also said that Johnson’s profession was “relevant to the case because higher standards of conduct could be expected from the complainant's husband because of the nature of her employment”.

The PCC dismissed this argument as “implausible” given the fact that Johnson’s husband was a serving police officer – “a role which in itself demands high standards of conduct”.

But it rejected the complaint on the grounds that the paper had not identified her in a manner that breached the terms of Clause 9.

In its conclusions the PCC said:

The Commission understood the complainant's desire to avoid intrusive attention stemming from her husband's crime. Nonetheless, as she had herself acknowledged, publications are generally entitled to identify those concerned in court proceedings – including, as in this case, by publishing their names and photographs.

It is inevitable that this will enable members of the community with prior knowledge of the individuals concerned to connect innocent family members with the proceedings. For this reason, Clause 9 cannot reasonably be interpreted as imposing an obligation on publications to avoid the publication of any information that might contribute to the identification of family members in such circumstances: "identification" must mean something more.

The coverage under complaint had not identified the complainant by name, and nor had she been photographed; the nature of her work had been mentioned, in general terms, in the text of the articles, but beyond this there had been no further reference to her. While the Commission welcomed the newspaper's removal of the reference to the complainant from its coverage as a positive response to her concerns, on balance it concluded that this reference had not "identified" her in a manner that breached the terms of Clause 9.

In addition, the Commission did not consider this reference to the complainant's role as a public servant represented an unjustified intrusion into her private life in this context. The complaints under Clause 3 and Clause 9 were not upheld.

Johnson also made a separate complaint on behalf of her husband under Clause 4 (Harassment) of the Code, which was also rejected.

She told the PCC that on two occasions over the course of the legal proceedings a journalist at the newspaper contacted her husband on his mobile phone asking for comment.

PC Johnson had previously been in professional contact with her husband and had retained his contact details.

The PCC explained that while her husband had spoken to the journalist early on in the case, a subsequent contact had caused “upset” and led him to change his mobile number.

The officer believed that “the use of his contact details in this context was inappropriate and unprofessional, and that the journalist had attempted to exploit a previous working relationship to gain his confidence”.

The Mail said the journalist had since left the newspaper and could not respond to the allegations, but that in any case it did not accept the harassment claims.

It said it was “entirely appropriate – and indeed, responsible – for the reporter to have contacted the complainant's husband at the different stages of the case”.

In its adjudication the PCC said:

While it noted the complainant's husband's concerns, the Commission did not agree that the use of the complainant's husband's details in this instance for the legitimate journalistic purpose of obtaining his comment on the allegations against him constituted harassment under the terms of Clause 4.

While the complainant had contended that the contact was potentially "exploitative", there was no suggestion that the journalist had acted aggressively toward the complainant's husband, nor that he had continued to make contact after a request to desist. The complaint was not upheld.

 

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