THE publisher of The Northern Echo has been fined after naming the victim of an alleged sexual assault in a case described as “highly unusual” and without legal precedent.
Newquest North East pleaded guilty, having indicated a “not guilty” plea at an earlier hearing.
Teesside Magistrates Court heard how reports in the paper and online identified the complainant by publishing her surname during a hearing relating to physical assault carried out on her.
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During that hearing, the defendant’s barrister had referred to an alleged rape which did not end up forming part of the case against his client.
The fact that the rape allegation did not proceed led the newspaper to believe that it could legally name the woman in a report of a criminal court hearing of a non- sexual offence , but subsequent legal investigations showed that she should have been given lifelong anonymity.
Chris Atkinson, prosecuting, told the court the claimant had suffered huge emotional distress and had been contacted directly by another news organisation after the story appeared online.
Mr Atkinson read out sections of the claimants’ victim impact statement where she described how she had been left feeling humiliated when she started receiving text messages from friends after they had read the story.
She said: “I felt my privacy and dignity had been destroyed and my own personal life had been put on display for all to see.”
In mitigation, Guy Vassall-Adams said this was a “highly unusual” case. He said the newspaper immediately accepted that, ethically, the woman should not have been named but believed that no law had been broken, maintaining it was a case of “genuine legally uncertain terrain”.
He said he hoped some good would come out of the case because it would serve to clarify the law.
District Judge Martin Walker acknowledged that the case was “novel”, adding he was satisfied there was “a real legal potential argument that would have had to be considered” had it not been for Newsquest North East changing its plea.
However, he said the company should have pleaded guilty earlier. He described it as a “serious breach” of the Sexual Offences Act, saying there was no public interest justification to identify the woman.
He said: “I should make it clear to the complainant that any sum of money is only really a mark of the distress caused. What she wanted is closure and I hope this allows her to put this dreadful incident behind her.”
The judge fined the publisher £2,400, ordered it to pay £4,500 in compensation, £2,003 in costs and a £480 victim surcharge.
Judge Walker said a separate charge against the newspaper’s editor, Peter Barron, had been “properly discontinued”.
A Newsquest North East spokesperson: “This was an unusual case involving a novel and complicated point of law where the wording of the relevant statute is unclear. However, it is important that proper expectations of anonymity are met by the media when allegations of sex offences are made. We are sincerely sorry for any distress we have inadvertently caused in this case.”