The former editor of the Sun, David Dinsmore, has been convicted of breaching the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Act after the paper inadvertently identified the teenage victim of the footballer Adam Johnson.
The paper published an article headlined “Soccer ace and girl he bedded” containing a photograph of the girl with Johnson, taken from her Facebook page, following Johnson’s arrest last year.
Johnson has since been jailed for six years having been convicted of sexual activity with a child.
Victims of sexual offences are guaranteed lifelong anonymity under the legislation, with the press prohibited from publishing any photographs or other details, such as their name, address or place of work, which might lead to the victim being identified by the public.
In the photograph in question, published with the subheading “Johnson in pose with his 15-year-old fan”, the girl’s image had been heavily obscured, and a different background had been photoshopped in. The judge at Westminster Magistrates Court commented that “it is indeed clear that there are no facial features identifiable from the photo, the hair colour has been disguised, the hair length has been changed, and the background to the photograph has been altered and indeed there have been other changes relating to, for example, clothing.”
The judge was satisfied that Dinsmore and his staff “took steps that they thought complied with the law”, but ruled that in spite of the extensive alterations made to the image, the girl could be identifiable to social media users who were familiar with the photograph from the private Facebook account, which was later shut down.
Dinsmore, who is currently chief operating officer of News UK, was ordered to pay £1,300 costs and £1,000 in compensation.
The Crown Prosecution Service commented that while usually both the publisher and editor would be prosecuted in these circumstances, they were unable to pursue the publisher of The Sun in this case owing to a paperwork error.
This decision is a reminder that publishers and editors should exercise extreme caution when considering publishing images relating to articles about alleged sexual offences, even where the image has been heavily edited. For an offence to be committed it is sufficient that the individual is identifiable to, for example, those with access to their private social media accounts, even if they would not be identifiable to the general public. It is clearly safest to avoid publishing any photos at all of victims of sexual offences, however much an image has been altered, particularly given that use of social media to identify anonymous parties is common.