Website's technical error leads to sex attack victim being named

I said in this blog last month that newspapers, magazines and websites can get into legal difficulties because of procedural errors rather than a lack of legal knowledge.

There was an unusual example last week.

Greater Manchester Police issued a press release about a man who was jailed for duping his friend into making a blackmail payment for a sex attack that never happened.

They also released a pdf of a hand-written 'receipt' which the man issued, to confirm the ‘victim’ had received the money.

The document was used in evidence and details of the 'sex assault victim’s’ name were blanked out with white blocks, as you can see. It was used by the Manchester Evening News

Another website was technically unable to upload a pdf to their website, so they converted it into a jpeg and published it.

But they didn’t realise that the conversion process removed the white blocks … so the name of the ‘sex attack victim’ was there for all to see.

The woman had, in fact, genuinely been the victim of inappropriate behaviour by the blackmailer’s friend. So her identity may have been protected by the Sexual Offences Act 2003.

The woman contacted the website, and the image was quickly removed. The publisher had a lucky escape.

They may have had a defence that this did not know the image was likely to identify a possible sex offence victim. But they would have faced uncomfortable few months waiting to see if the defence worked. They could have been fined up to £5000 if convicted.

Again, it’s those non-legal processes that can be the most dangerous.

Cleland Thom is a trainer and consultant in media law

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