By Jean Morgan and Jon Slattery
A conviction for the publishers of the Evening Herald, Plymouth, on Wednesday will stop the media publishing pictures of under-18s convicted of crimes, even if their features have been obscured.
A district judge has decided that although the Herald blocked out the face of a 15-year-old found guilty of stabbing a fellow pupil, his identification by family and friends was enough to find that the newspaper had committed criminal contempt.
In the past, the legal test has been whether a member of the public could reasonably recognise the subject from a pixelated or blocked photograph. Judge Paul Farmer’s verdict at Plymouth Magistrates’ Court changed that. He decided that identification by family and friends was enough.
The judge’s decision will apply to words as well as pictures.
Last year, two Sussex editors successfully appealed against conviction for allegedly identifying a teenager in copy in the The Argus, Brighton, and the West Sussex County Times.
The Herald’s publishers were fined £1,500 with costs. They are considering an appeal.
Editor Alan Qualtrough, who gave evidence that the newspaper had gone beyond the industry standard in its attempt to conceal the boy’s identity, said after the case: “We believe it is a perverse judgment and one that will affect the whole of the British media to its detriment. It is significant not only for the regional press but for the national press and TV as well.”
Society of Editors executive director Bob Satchwell, who submitted evidence to the court, said: “This has huge implications for the media, particularly television. As it stands, there must be no use of pictures even if the identity is blocked out in the normal way.” The boy received a two-year suspended detention order in a youth court last March. Before publishing, the newspaper had the story legally checked.
The boy’s father gave evidence that 30 people had telephoned him to say they had recognised his son from the picture. A friend of the family and one of his teachers also gave evidence of recognition.
The father admitted in court that he wanted compensation.
lThe publishers of the Peterborough Evening Telegraph are also facing prosecution for allegedly breaching Section 49 of the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act by using a pixelated picture last April of a teenage youth convicted of breaking a pensioner’s jaw.
Editor Kevin Booth told Press Gazette: “The parents of the 17-year-old juvenile made a complaint to the police that their son could be identified from the picture.
“The matter is due to go to magistrates’ court later this year when East Midlands Newspapers, publishers of the Evening Telegraph, will plead not guilty to breaching Section 49.”
Jean Morgan and Jon Slattery