The conviction of Newcastle Journal editor Brian Aitken looks like a shocking injustice

In a country where questionable criminal actions against journalists have become commonplace the conviction and fine for Newcastle Journal editor Brian Aitken remains shocking.

He today has a criminal conviction for breaching Section 39 of the Children and Young Persons Act – something which will come up on CRB checks when he applies for future jobs and which could stop him travelling to the USA or Australia or sitting on the board of a charity.

He has also been personally fined £1,600 for what appears to be a technical breach of a court order which caused no harm and was done for the best of motives.

The charge arose from a report of a magistrate’s court appearance of a female member of school staff charged with grooming a female pupil and engaging in sexual activity with her.

As any trained journalist knows, all sexual offence complainants have lifelong anonymity in the press.

So Aitken and his colleagues took care not to publish anything which would identify the girl.

After much discussion they decided that it was in the public interest to name the school and that, with 1,000 pupils on the roll, this would not lead to the identification of the alleged victim.

This is what happened and as I understand it no members of the public have raised concerns about the way the story was handled.

The problem arose for Aitken because, unknown to him, the magistrate in the case had issued a Section 39 order in the case. This is broader than the Sexual Offence Act and specifically bans identification of the school or any other matters which could lead to the identification of the child.

The magistrate does not appear to have made any attempt to flag up the Section 39 order to the paper and it was not continued when the case went to Crown Court.

But no matter, for this technical breach Aitken was questioned under caution by police. He appeared in court. And because it is a strict liability offence he had to plead guilty. An abuse of process defence failed.

I understand publisher Trinity Mirror is appealing the ruling on a point of law and I wish them well.

The Journal should have checked with the court to see what orders were in place.

But it still seems manifestly unjust that an editor who was doing his best to serve the public interest should be tarred with a criminal conviction.

In an unrelated development, Aitken is facing redundancy under a “streamlining exercise” which will see Mirror editor Lloyd Embley become editor in chief of all Trinity Mirror’s regional newspaper titles outside Scotland.

This case is a reminder that editors have a huge responsibility and that it is a job title which publishers fiddle with at their peril.

The trend nowadays is for editors to become content directors in charge of large groups of titles.

Local World would like to do away with editors all together and give journalists responsibility for self publishing.

The Aitken case shows that under English law this just isn’t possible.

Newspapers must have one person with their name over the door and that individual could find themselves personally in court for any number of legal mistakes which could be made. They must be given time and space to “edit” aside from the all the management and commercial responsibilities companies would like to place on them on the name of “streamlining”.

I would advise Embley to make the time to give particular attention to court reports in his new empire of local newspapers lest one day he finds himself in the same unfortunate position as Aitken. 

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