The Sun has been censured by the Press Complaints Commission for breaching the harassment clause of the Editors' Code in respect of approaches to a woman who was attacked by publicist Max Clifford.
The PCC revealed today that the woman was a witness for the prosecution in the Clifford trial. Clifford, 71, was jailed for eight years in May after being found guilty of a string of historic sexual attacks.
The woman complained that The Sun harassed her by attempting to contact her on four occasions for a comment on the case.
She said a reporter from the newspaper first visited her house in April 2013. She said he was met at the door by a friend who asked him to leave. In June 2013, she said a second reporter called the home and spoke to her husband. She said he took the reporter’s contacts but suggested that she would not comment until after the trial.
On 26 February 2014, she said a reporter again visiuted her home. She said she opened the door and confirmed her identity and then asked a police officer in attendance to speak to the reporter. The officer told the PCC that he informed the reporter of the prior approaches and that “she did not wish to speak to [the newspaper] at any time”.
On 13 March 2014 another reporter visited the house shortly after the woman testified. He left at the complainant’s request.
The Sun told the PCC that it regretted that the woman had been distressed by the visits, it maintained that approaches for comment were standard practice for a newsworthy case, and did not accept that they amounted to harassment.
The newspaper said that during the first approach, the reporter had received the impression that he was at the wrong address. It provided a recording of the second contact, which it described as friendly and vague.
It said there had been no request to desist, the husband said that until the “matter was resolved probably [the complainant would not speak]”, and that it would be best if the reporter “held off”.
The third approach was eight months later. By the reporter’s account, the complainant who opened the door had not identified herself and an unidentified man had then told the reporter to leave, using a phrase that it summarised as, “don’t show your face here again”.
The newspaper said that if had it understood that he was a police officer, it would not have returned. As it was, however, a further approach was made several weeks later, at which point the complainant stated that she was being harassed.
The newspaper maintained that it was only on the final approach that a reporter knowingly spoke to the complainant. In any case, it said that at this stage the complainant had given evidence, warranting a renewed approach. It said that individuals in the woman’s position often changed their mind about commenting and that the woman later spoken to another newspaper. Nonetheless, it offered to apologise privately to the complainant.
The PCC said: "Protecting vulnerable individuals from unwanted and intrusive press contacts is among the most important functions of the Editors’ Code. Four separate attempts were made to contact the complainant, and the Commission considered carefully the nature of each incident.
"No desist request had been made during the first approach. The recording of the second approach demonstrated that the complainant’s husband had said that, until the trial had finished, the complainant 'probably' would not want to speak to the newspaper. On balance, the Commission concluded that this did not constitute a request for the newspaper not to make further approaches. Therefore the third approach, eight months later, did not raise a breach of Clause 4.
"There was some dispute about the third approach, including about whether the complainant had identified herself. The newspaper had accepted, however, that the reporter had been told not to 'show his face' again. The Commission was satisfied that this was a clear request to desist. Although the policeman had not identified himself, there were no substantive grounds for the reporter to doubt that he was representing the complainant.
"While individuals do sometimes change their minds about speaking to the press, this could not justify persistence in this context, particularly given the complainant’s vulnerable position. Similarly, while the complainant had later spoken to another newspaper, this did not affect the validity of the request – to the contrary, it bore out her husband’s prediction that she would not comment until after the verdict. The fourth visit from the newspaper therefore breached the terms of Clause 4 of the Code."
A spokesman for The Sun said: "While we do not believe that our conduct (over a period of more than a year in which we only spoke to the complainant once) amounted to harassment, we respect the PCC's right to reach an independent decision and have published it prominently. We regret that we caused the complainant any distress."