The Peterborough Evening Telegraph’s result in the magistrates’ court this week will be one to cheer newspaper and television editors across the nation. District Judge David Chinery threw out the Crown Prosecution Service’s contention that the paper had committed contempt of court by publishing a pixelated picture of a 17-year-old youth who had been found guilty of breaking a pensioner’s jaw in a “road rage” incident.
It’s a verdict in direct contrast to a case in Plymouth at the beginning of the year in which the Evening Herald was fined £1,500 for criminal contempt after it published a similarly obscured photograph of a 15-year-old boy found guilty of stabbing a fellow pupil. The lad’s family successfully claimed that, despite the attempts to obscure his face, he was still recognisable to friends and family.
Previously the legal test had been whether a member of the public could reasonably recognise the subject from the image.
At the time, editor Alan Qualtrough called it a “perverse” judgment “that will affect the whole of the British media to its detriment”. The Herald subsequently appealed and lost.
Since then, editors have had to think twice before publishing obscured or pixelated images of under-age criminals.
The case in Peterborough appears to swing the balance once again towards publication of what are often stories of great regional public interest. Judge Chinery said that editor Kevin Booth’s pixelation of the boy’s face was enough indication that he knew the risk of identifying the boy to the wider public and had done what he could to prevent it. There was no case to answer, he said.
A victory for common sense and the public interest.
The case for subterfuge
Public interest is also at the heart of the trial of Evening Standard reporter Wayne Vesey due to open this week, a case that makes us very uneasy. As part of an undercover story investigating security at Heathrow Airport, Vesey applied for a cleaner’s job. He’s now become the first journalist to face a charge of dishonesty and forgery relating to the job application he made for the story. His father, who provided a reference, is also charged.
The Editors’ Code of Practice allows for the use of subterfuge provided it is in the public interest and that the story cannot be obtained by other means. Investigative journalists will be watching the verdict at Harrow Crown Court very closely.