Don't let jigsaw identification be a puzzle

The Sun and the Wigan Evening Post were lucky to escape prosecution for breaching a section 39 order under the Children and Young Persons Act 1933 recently.

Both papers were asked to explain to the Judge at Chester Crown Court why the order had been breached in the Gary Newlove murder case. The order related to a 16-year-old defendant. The Sun revealed he had a disability and the Evening Post published his address.

The Sun’s article may have been safe on its own – but when put alongside the Evening Post’s article, it was not difficult to work out the defendant’s identity.

The laws regarding the identification of young people and alleged victims of sex offences are being applied very rigorously at the moment, and we need to take extra care with the details that we provide about them.

Both laws now say that we cannot publish details of the person’s school, college or place of employment – though many would argue that these details rarely lead to identification. Referring to a 12-year-old boy who goes to X comprehensive school may only narrow the field down to around 60 – or maybe double that if it’s an all-boys school.

And the restriction can cause particular problems if, for example, a boy is accused of theft from his school, or a woman claims she was raped by a colleague at her workplace.

Cases where parents are charged with neglecting their children can be a real problem. Even if you leave out the family connection, it is unlikely they would be in a position to neglect anyone else’s children but their own.

Making reports like this safe can be very difficult and you can end up with virtually no story at all unless the restrictions are lifted or relaxed.

Photos are usually safe, provided the person’s face is thoroughly pixelated. But we need to bear in mind that there may be other details in the photo that can lead to identification taking place: A tattoo, an unusual watch or a distinctive item of clothing. Even photographs of people taken from behind can be dangerous, as The Daily Telegraph and the Daily Express discovered to their cost last year.

Care needs to be taken to scrutinise other media as well as our own, to minimise the ‘jigsaw effect’– where a newspaper publishes certain facts, and a radio station broadcasts others, and the reports, taken together, reveal identity.

This is more difficult now than it has ever been, as there are so many news outlets in the modern media marketplace to keep track of.

Legal action is usually taken against the outlet that publishes or broadcasts second, because they are deemed to have completed the jigsaw.

So printed publications are advised to copy the details that have already been used on radio, TV and internet news outlets. But news editors need to check that the outlet they are copying from has not used too many details. If it has, subsequent publishers should use the same details, but fewer of them… and avoid adding any new information of their own.

Jigsaw identification can also be a danger within the same news organisation. For instance, a web editor might use a youth’s age and the town that he lives near. But the news editor of the printed version might opt to leave out his age, but name the small village he lived in unless there was close liaison between the two.

Local papers within the same group are particularly vulnerable with certain stories. For instance, if a Macclesfield boy is accused of stabbing someone at the youth club he goes to in Stockport, it is only natural that the Macclesfield Express and the Stockport Express will want to use the details that pertain to their own circulation areas… but the two stories together could complete the jigsaw.

So there is a clear need to liaise with rival news editors – and colleagues within the same group.

Cleland Thom is legal adviser to the Manchester Evening News, MEN Media, Trader Media Group, Essex Independent Newspapers and the Local Radio Company.

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