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September 13, 2018

Impress dismisses complaint by child sex abuse victim named without consent in Byline article

By Dorothy Musariri

Impress has dismissed a complaint from a child sex abuse victim who was named in a story on Byline without giving the website consent to waive their right to anonymity.

The complainant had, however, previously made public on multiple occasions that they were a survivor of sexual abuse and had been named in the UK national press, the Washington Post and on social media.

The article, published on 18 May, named the complainant in the headline as it discussed how the UK’s independent inquiry into child sex abuse had “itself abused survivors’ trust and privacy”.

The complainant told Impress that Byline failed to preserve their identity as a “vulnerable witness” and that they had not waived their right to anonymity.

The Sexual Offences (Amendment) Act 1992 gives sexual offence victims automatic lifetime anonymity from the time an allegation is made, unless they choose to waive this right.

The complainant also said the publication of their name was an “act of malice and intimidation and unacceptable conduct by a journalist” and said it had been done in an “invasive” manner.

The complaint was made under Clause 5 (intimidation),  Clause 6 (justice) and Clause 7 (privacy)  of the Impress Standards Code.

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The complainant felt the use of their name was unnecessary and a deliberate act of intimidation, saying they had received abusive emails from a third party, known by the article’s author.

They added that the story had impacted on their right to privacy and caused them “significant distress”.

In response Byline said it was clear the victim had voluntarily named themselves to various media organisations in the UK and abroad.

The publisher said it believes that victims of sexual offences and their privacy should be protected, but that this does not mean they can selectively waive their rights of anonymity with respect to specific journalists or publishers.

Byline added that requiring publishers to request specific permission from victims to publish material already in the public domain would amount to a form of “targeted prior restraint and censorship” in breach of freedom of expression rights under Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

Byline denied the naming of the complainant was “in any way malicious or any part of a campaign of intimidation”.

The Impress regulatory committee said: “Merely referring to the complainant in this article did not constitute an act of intimidation in the course of journalistic activities, particularly so in light of the fact the complainant had identified themselves to the media as a victim of sex offending.”

It added that the information published was limited compared to what had already entered the public domain.

The committee said it understood the automatic right to anonymity to sex offence victims, but that “there is no settled legal position on the issue of whether subsequent reporting by a secondary media organisation once a victim has been identified by a primary media organisation breaches the Act”.

“In practice it does occur and goes unchallenged,” Impress added.

As Byline did not publish any details about the complainant that had not been reported in other publications, the identification was “acceptable in the context of the article” and there was no breach of Clause 6 (justice).

The “widespread dissemination” of the published information also meant the complainant had no reasonable expectation of privacy, Impress said, so there was no breach of Clause 7 (privacy).

The fact that the author had been copied into emails from a third party to the complainant was “not in and of itself evidence of intimidation in the course of journalistic activities”, the committee said, finding no breach of Clause 5 (intimidation).

Read the full adjudication by Impress here.

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