Reporter 'scapegoat' for contempt blunder

A reporter has claimed that ‘scapegoating’claims have been put out by his newspaper after it was threatened with prosecution by the Attorney General under the Children Act.

The Coventry Times ran a front-page story concerning a mother’s complaint that police and other authorities had failed to properly investigate claims by her three-year-old daughter that she had been sexually assaulted by her father.

The article used material from the Children and Family Courts Advisory and Support Service (Cafcass) which was admitted in court and restricted under the Children Act.

In a statement issued this week, editor Darren Parkin said the reporter who wrote the story, Les Reid, had been warned by Cafcass about using the material but that he was unaware of the warning.

‘I did not realise the risk, and did not realise that simply publishing the material might itself be a contempt. I have learned a sharp lesson from this,”?he said.

A spokesman for the Attorney General’s Office said the matter had been the subject of careful consideration by the Attorney, and that on this occasion, the public interest would be served by giving the newspaper an opportunity to highlight the issue in the ‘trade press’for the benefit of other journalists.

The spokesman said: ‘It is important that reporters covering family proceedings are fully aware of the legal restrictions and seek legal advice in cases of doubt, or where they are unfamiliar with such proceedings.”

Reid told Press Gazette that he was an experienced, NCTJ-trained senior journalist and City University journalism school postgraduate and that he disagreed with the wording of the statement about the case put out by his paper (which did not name him).

He said: ‘To avoid any risk of prosecution and a small fine at worst, some people seem determined to make false and scapegoating claims that I acted in complete ignorance of the contempt laws and more training is required.”

He claimed that he had made colleagues aware of the risk of contempt at a news conference, but said: ‘I also argued we had a professional duty in the public interest to publish apparent professional criticism of the way the police investigated allegations of child sexual abuse.

‘I was well aware of restrictions on reporting court proceedings involving children. However, I thought we would minimise any risk of prosecution by acting responsibly in ensuring we were not damaging the legal process or the family.

‘I believe in freedom of expression for the press, a principle enshrined in the Human Rights Act, introduced by this Government, which can counterbalance the contempt of court laws.”

Press Association media law specialist Mike Dodd said: ‘There are always dangers when handling stories about things which have been in the family courts, because of the tight restrictions on reporting such cases.

‘This case highlights the dangers and shows how important it is for all journalists handling such stories to be clear about the law as it applies to reporting such cases. The message is: if you are not sure about the rules, then find out before going into print.”

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