Case Study 2. Identification of the Victim of Sexual Violence.

Woman vs Sunday life

June 25, 2012


Complaint: A woman complained to the Press Complaints Commission due to an article headlined "‘Sorry' victim's begging letter to her rapist", published in the Sunday Life on 29 January 2012. She asked the Commission to review, along wth other clauses, the breach of Clause 3 (Privacy) and Clause 11 (Victims of sexual assault) of the Editors' Code of Practice.
The complainant had been a victim of Jason King, who was convicted of 58 offences including 9 rapes (involving girls between the ages of 12 and 15). Her diary had been used as evidence against Jason King at trial. Years later, the complainant had written to Mr King explaining that she "didn't want [him] to go to jail", would "never forgive" herself for her role in his conviction, and had considered saying that her diary was a "lie". She also asked to visit him in prison. The newspaper had obtained the handwritten letter and showed it to the complainant's mother for comment before publishing it, obscuring only her name and address.

The complainant said the newspaper had failed to respect her private life: how she felt about Mr King, and what she had written to him, were private matters. She had undergone lengthy therapy, and the newspaper should have been aware of the article's potential to cause further harm. The complainant also said that the article had contained sufficient personal information (her current age, her age at the time of the attack, and a sample of her handwriting) to identify her.

While the newspaper greatly regretted the distress caused to the complainant, it considered that how Mr King continued to have a psychological hold over the victim and he had manipulated her as a schoolgirl, was a matter of public interest. The newspaper didn’t consider showing the letter to the complainant's mother as an issue as she was the only person who could convince her daughter to stop communicating with Mr. King. According to the newspaper, the fact that Mr King had been advised to use the letter to launch an appeal was also a public interest.
The newspaper did not accept a breach of Clause 11 as well.It said the article had contained no information about the complainant beyond what had been reported at the time of the trial.

Decision: The complaint was upheld in part of breaching Clauses 3 and 11.

Reasoning: This was an unusual complaint under Clause 3 (Privacy) and Clause 11 (Victims of sexual assault), because the complainant had not been named and would not be identifiable to the vast majority of the newspaper's readers.

According to Clause 3, "everyone is entitled to respect for his or her private and family life, home, health and correspondence". The complainant's feelings towards Mr King were extremely intimate matters, so much so that the existence of the correspondence was unknown even to her family. Regardless of whether she was identifiable, she retained a right to privacy with respect to such correspondence. The question was whether a countervailing public interest justified publication.

There was an undeniable public interest in exploring the deep and lasting effects of sexual abuse, which the complainant's letter illuminated vividly. Balanced against this was her extreme vulnerability: she had been the child victim of extremely serious sexual offences and suffered ongoing trauma as a result.

The reproduction of the letter and the public exposure of the complainant's private feelings had evidently caused severe distress. In the Commission's view, the newspaper could have achieved its aim - to expose the extent of Mr King's continuing hold on one of his victims - through less intrusive means. It concluded that the reproduction of the handwritten letter, in full, represented an unjustified intrusion into the complainant's private life without consent in breach of Clause 3.

In addition, before publication the newspaper had showed the complainant's letter to her mother. The Commission acknowledged the newspaper's position that it had acted to protect the complainant. Nonetheless, the complainant was an adult, with rights to privacy even within her own family. The Commission concluded that the decision to show the letter to the complainant's mother without her consent had represented a further breach of Clause 3.

Clause 11 (Victims of sexual assault) states that "the press must not identify victims of sexual assault or publish material likely to contribute to such identification unless there is adequate justification and they are legally free to do so". The article had included the following personal data of the complainant: current age; her age at the time of the attack; the general area in which she lives; and an image of the letter, which showed her distinctive handwriting. Again, it was the publication of the letter that tipped the balance which is a breach of Clause 11.