192/2019 - A Woman and the Northern Standard
The Press Ombudsman has not upheld a complaint that the Northern Standard breached Principle 5 (Privacy) of the Code of Practice of the Press Council of Ireland.
The Northern Standard reported on a court case which involved domestic violence. A man admitted assaulting his then partner. The article included the name and address of the victim of the assault, together with some details of the evidence given in court. The victim of the assault wrote to the editor of the Northern Standard saying that she had been led to believe that “under no circumstances could either party in this case be named in any newspaper due to it being a domestic violence case”. She said the publication of her full name and address in the article failed to respect her private life and had devastating consequences on her “well-being”. She claimed that the article breached Principle 5 (Privacy) of the Code of Practice.
The journalist responsible for the article responded and stated that the case had taken place in the criminal law courts where names of defendants and victims “are regularly reported”. He stated that it was only in family law cases that identities were withheld in reporting. He said that he was under no “privacy obligation” in his reporting on the case, but had he known that the victim had serious concern about being identified “that would of course be taken into consideration”. He said that iIn the particular case he was unaware of any concern about the victim being named.
The woman replied to the journalist stating that she had been informed that the case in which she gave her evidence had been a family law case. She asked why the reporter hadn’t exercised discretion in his reporting of the case.
The woman made a formal complaint to the Office of the Press Ombudsman stating that the Northern Standard had breached Principle 5 (Privacy) by publishing her full name and full address in its report of the court case. As a result of the report of the court case she says she has suffered stress and anxiety “caused by everyone knowing about my private life”
The editor of the Northern Standard in his submission to the Office of the Press Ombudsman made the point that the assurance the complainant received about not being identified was “the starting point” of the complainant’s “sense of grievance”. He stated that the information she had been given was incorrect. “Assault cases arising from domestic circumstances are dealt with under the criminal law and not the family law”, he said. He went on to state that such cases are “usually held in open court” and that the practice of his newspaper “has been to report such cases as we would other causes of assault, but with due and careful regard for any sensitive personal matters that might arise in the course of evidence and a mindfulness of any direction the sitting judge might give concerning restrictions on publication.” He went on to state that because the complainant had been misinformed that she would not be named neither she nor anyone representing her had made any representations about her privacy to the newspaper. He added that the reporting of court proceedings is a core function of any serious newspaper and although his newspaper received many representations for “non-publication of cases” these are not entertained. However, he accepted that discretion is exercised on occasions where “concerns about the mental health or general well-being of parties” are raised in advance and in such cases sometimes particular details, or indeed entire trials, are not reported. Unfortunately, he said, the Northern Standard received no representations on behalf of the complainant, so consideration was not givien to withholding any aspect of the case. He went on to state “The privacy to which all citizens are entitled becomes circumscribed to some extent by their engagement in proceedings heard in open court”.
The complainant responded by saying she still couldn’t see how it was in the public interest to have her named in the article. She said she believed that the “Northern Standard has acted in an unnecessarily careless and reckless way towards me.”
As the complaint could not be resolved by conciliation it was forwarded to the Press Ombudsman for a decision.
I have considerable sympathy for the complainant. Her evidence must have been central in the conviction of a man on assault charges. For criminal prosecutions to succeed it is essential that private citizens give their testimonies in court. This mostly happens in open court where newspapers report details made public in the courtroom. It would be preferable if witnesses were made aware that their names and addresses may be published in court reports. In this particular case, it appears that the complainant received information which was incorrect. This clearly compounded the shock she experienced when she read in the Northern Standard the report of the case where she gave evidence. The editor of the Northern Standard in his submission emphasises the important role newspapers play in the public seeing that justice is done whilst acknowledging that in exceptional circumstances the newspaper may withhold information. However, in the preparation of the report that led to this complaint no representations were made about the witness’s desire to not have her name published. Therefore, the Northern Standard could not have known any special circumstances that the newspaper might need to take into consideration before publishing the name and address of the witness. I find there was no breach of Principle 5.
Note: The complainant has requested that her complaint be reported in a manner which does not disclose her identity.
15 October 2019