The Press Council considered whether its Standards of Practice were breached by an article published in The Courier Mail on 26 March headed “’DADDY DID IT’: Eight-year-old star witness in murder trial, court told” in print and “Boy 8, to be key witness at father’s murder trial” online.
The article reported on a bail application by a man accused of murder, in which the prosecution was considering calling as a key witness the man’s eight-year-old son, who was six at the time of the alleged murder. The article identified the boy by his full name as well as the accused and the location of the alleged murder.
The Council asked the publication to comment on whether the material breached its Standards of Practice with regard to avoiding intruding on reasonable expectations of privacy and not causing substantial distress, particularly as the material involved naming an eight-year-old child as a potential witness in his father’s murder trial.
The publication said the article was a fair and accurate report of court proceedings that complied with the law. It said the boy was a witness and not a victim of crime and the prosecution’s concern had been that if released on bail the accused might seek to influence his son. It said the reference to the boy’s identity was necessary for a full and accurate reporting of the proceedings and it was not appropriate for the publication to choose not to identify him. The publication based this on the fact that the judicial officer had not made any orders suppressing the boy’s identity and, in a case heard in open court, witnesses do not have an expectation of privacy and it is in the public interest for them to be named so that justice is seen to be done. It also said other publications had published the name of the boy.
The Council’s Standards of Practice require publications to take reasonable steps to ensure that they avoid intruding on a person’s reasonable expectations of privacy and contributing materially to substantial offence, distress or prejudice or substantial risk to health or safety unless doing so is sufficiently in the public interest (General Principles 5 and 6).
The Council accepts that the court did not make any orders suppressing the boy’s name in this case, nor were there any other legal restrictions on identification, so the publication clearly did nothing unlawful. However, beyond the strict requirements of the law, publications have a further responsibility to ensure compliance with the Standards of Practice.
The Council considers that given the age of the boy, the nature of the allegations against his father and the fact that the prosecutor was contemplating calling him as a witness against his father, there was a reasonable expectation that the boy’s privacy should not be intruded upon by being named in the article. This was so even if his name had been used by the prosecutor in open court during the course of the bail application. The Council considers that the reporting of his name was not sufficiently in the public interest to outweigh this expectation of privacy in the circumstances. Accordingly, the Council concludes that its General Principle 5 was breached in this respect.
The Council also considers that the publication failed to take reasonable steps to avoid causing substantial offence, distress or prejudice or substantial risk to health or safety of the boy. Identifying him left him open to distress or worse, for instance at school and in the schoolyard. Publishing his name added nothing to the impact of the story and was not sufficiently in the public interest to justify risking such consequences. Accordingly, the Council concludes that General Principle 6 was also breached in this respect.
Relevant Council Standards (not required for publication):
This adjudication applies the following General Principles of the Council.
“Publications must take reasonable steps to:
5. Avoid intruding on a person’s reasonable expectations of privacy, unless doing so is sufficiently in the public interest;
6. Avoid causing or contributing materially to substantial offence, distress or prejudice, or a substantial risk to health or safety, unless doing so is sufficiently in the public interest.”