Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 31 May 2016

Adam Johnson: Why putting people in the picture can be risky business

By Paul Connolly

Published 11/03/2016

Sex trial: Adam Johnson
Sex trial: Adam Johnson

A salutary lesson should have been learned this week by anyone who thinks the mere act of pixelating a photo will make it OK for publication.

And although the case at the centre of the matter involved a professional journalist, it is also a warning to anyone who publishes a picture of the victim of a sexual offence that might lead in any way to the identification of the victim.

This includes bloggers, anyone on Facebook or Twitter, and all other private individuals on all social media platforms.

This week, former editor of The Sun David Dinsmore was convicted of breaching the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Act 1992 after a pixelated photograph of disgraced footballer Adam Johnson's teenage victim appeared in the London red top.

Johnson (28), a former Sunderland and England player, is awaiting sentencing after being found guilty of sexual activity with a 15-year-old girl.

Police in Durham, in the north-east of England, initiated a prosecution against Dinsmore after The Sun copied a photograph of the victim from her Facebook page and published it in the newspaper.

The Sun had changed the photo to disguise the victim's identity. Or so it thought.

Victims of sexual offences automatically receive anonymity from the courts.

This anonymity is total and lifelong and only falls away if the victim voluntarily waives this right themselves without pressure from any quarter.

The Sun had taken steps to protect the victim's identity, but these were insufficient.

In fact, these lengths were quite significant, including changing colours, blanking out facial features and changing her hair length.

The court heard that the girl was identified by social media users and the judge ruled people familiar with her Facebook profile were, therefore, likely to have been able to identify her.

Judge Howard Riddle was quoted in Press Gazette as saying: "It is right and 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."

Nevertheless, Dinsmore was found guilty of breaching the Act.

The judge did accept mitigating factors existed.

Judge Riddle added: "Having heard from Mr Dinsmore, I am satisfied that he took - and the staff on the newspaper took - steps that they thought complied with the law."

The judge said he was satisfied Dinsmore did not know he was committing an offence and ordered that he pay £1,300 costs and offer to pay £1,000 in compensation to the girl for any distress caused.

Dinsmore is no longer in the editor's chair at The Sun, having been promoted to chief operating officer of its publisher, News UK, last year.

So, what's the moral of the story?

Well, professional journalists will need to take stock of their responsibilities if they use social media images - even if heavily disguised and with the issue of copyright settled.

The test "can this person be identified by a man or woman on the street?" is not enough.

And members of the public who post images of victims (and, indeed, alleged perpetrators) on social media need to be very sure they do not expose themselves to prosecution - even if they heavily disguise photos.

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