When reporting sexual offences, journalists should question every detail provided by police

The Press Complaints Commission (PCC) ruling against the News Shopper (Bexley and Kent) for revealing an alleged rape victim's address is a warning of the dangers of relying on information given by the police and other authorities.

The paper showed a video on its website about the police investigation, and featured shots of where the incident took place.

These included clearly recognisable shop fronts, and footage of forensic officers entering the property.

The copy also identified the road and area.

But the site was also the victim's home. And the alleged victim said that friends and relatives saw the coverage and got in touch. Her expectations of anonymity were shattered.

The paper apologised, but said the police did not tell them the incident had taken place at the victim's home.

But it was the paper's job to find out. As the commission said in its ruling: "Responsibility for published material lay with the editor."

This is obvious, of course.

But does that mean a reporter should cross-question every detail given by police?

In the case of crimes involving sexual offences, and under-18s, the answer is: yes, as impractical as that might seem.

In this case, the News Shopper was lucky not to have been prosecuted under the Sexual Offences Act 2003, which, of course, forbids publishing a rape victims victim's address.

I have in my collection press releases from police and local authorities that are in contempt of court and that name young offenders.

A friend of mine, news editor at a radio station, ended up before a crown court judge after broadcasting inaccurate information provided by the police press office.

Alarm bells should ring throughout the newsroom whenever a crime story about a sexual offence or an under-18 is on the news list.

Don't take anything for granted.

Cleland Thom is a consultant in media law

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