Friday, August 21, 2009

The dangers of jigsaw identification

The Baby P case threw up some interesting points on who can and can't be identified during court cases, particularly those involving children.

Like most regional newspapers, the Leicester Mercury has a policy that says we won't name children involved in criminal cases as either victims or witnesses even if the law says we can.

There are clearly cases where we abandon this policy where naming the child may do more good than harm - the Maddy McCann case being the obvious local example. But we would also usually name a child where he court case involves the death of that child, which is why the Baby P case was so confusing.

Despite the fact that Baby P had died, the court oredered that he should not be named. Indeed, the court banned the media from naming anyone involved in the case and for those not closely connected, it was not immediately obvious why. At the time of the case last year, I was not editing newspapers and knew no more than any member of the public about the reasons behind the decision. I guessed, correctly as it turned out, that it was because some of those charged with the neglect of Baby P were due to face further charges on an unrelated crime at a later date. The theory was that if they were publicly named and found guilty of causing the baby's death, they would find it difficult to get a fair trial for the later charges.

Now that those later charges have been dealt with, the names of all those involved in the Baby P case are in the public domain.

However, the naming of those involved brought up another issue - something we call jigsaw identification.

This arises when different media outlets give different pieces of information which when added together identify someone who the courts believe should not be indentified. The most common situation where this arises is where a family member abuses a child. Our policy, and that recommended by the Press Complaints Commission, is to name the adult involved without giving their relationship to the child. We might leave out other information which would give away the child's name such as their age, the number of brothers and sisters they have or, sometimes, the school they go to. This will often mean that very few details of the actual crime are given - which you may think is a good thing anyway in a family newspaper.

The problem then arises where another media outlet - perhaps a national tabloid - decides to put far more details into their story, but leaves out the name of the adult. At this point they may well include the fact that the crime was committed by the father and give the age of the child. You can see that by putting the two reports together, it is easy to identify the child involved.

This tends to be much less of an issue nowadays as most news organisations will stick to the PCC code of conduct and, therefore, everyone will name the adult and leave out the details.

However, it appears that in the Baby P case, one of those involved - who was named by some newspapers, including the Mercury - has committed unconnected crimes which certain other papers decided to detail without naming the person concerned. That makes it very difficult for media outlets. We didn't make a choice in this case - we named the person as the other crimes were unconnected and we were not aware of them. My guess is that most other newspapers were in a similar position, but the one or two which did know about the other crimes put us all in a position where we may have, unwittingly, identified a child victim.

I think, fortunately, in this case, it is unlikely that anyone will put two and two together, but it does show how easy it is to fall foul of the law.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Dismissed with a wave of the hand

That's it. With a disimissive wave of his hand, Leicester City Council's Director of Legal Services has consigned our concerns about openness and transparency to the bin.

Like an exasperated Victorian parent faced with one question too many from a recalitrant child, the director has answered: 'Because I say so.'

He repeats his assertion that there is no unlawful blanket policy of taking discussions of certain sorts of financial information into private and refers me back to his original letter without dealing with any of the details we put before him.

'At the Cabinet meeting on 3rd August, when your reporter was present, I explained clearly the presumption that all business must be dealt with in public unless there are good reasons why information in a report should be dealt with as “exempt” and that the public interest in maintaining a statutory exemption outweighs the public interest in disclosing information.'

And so he did. But, once again, he doesn't explain how the 'balancing' act between openess and privacy was done. That, in my view, is because it wasn't.

It would have been quite easy to set it out with a list of the things which were said to be on the side of openess, followed by a list of the those which demanded secrecy and an explanation of why. But it's not going to happen. The director has spoken.

So, is that it? Well, possibly not. As I mentioned before, the leader of the city council, Councillor Ross Wilmott, also wrote to me and although he said much the same as the council's legal advisor, he did at least offer to meet with me to discuss the situation. I've accepted, suggesting that we meet one to one. Councillor Wilmott is, of course, the key to all of this - as leader of the council he could easily persuade those around him to be more open and I will take the opportunity to ask in detail the questions we have already raised in the hope of persuading him that the decision on Bowstring could have been taken more in the open and that, in future, a more rigorous questioning of reasons given for meeting in private might lead to more transparency.