A step too far

14 March 2001 – PressWise has consistently inveighed against the harassment of private individuals by the (usually tabloid) press. But the County Court ruling against The Sun last week under the Protection Against Harassment Act is a dangerous step too far. It threatens to outlaw legitimate investigative journalism and to provide a ‘rogue’s charter’ for any miscreant threatened with exposure, and any celebrity bitten by the media he or she feeds upon. It is, in short, a genuine blow to freedom of the press, implying that any investigative campaign which runs to more than one article could render a newspaper liable to prosecution.

This is not to say that we approve of the Sun‘s actions in this particular case, which involves a complaint by Esther Thomas, a black civilian clerk for the City of London Police, who took action against four officers over their behaviour towards a Somali asylum seeker who was looking for help. As a result, two sergeants were demoted and a PC was fined £700. The Sun published the story under the headline: “Beyond a joke: Fury as police sarges are busted after refugee jest” and went on to quote a ‘fellow cop’ as saying: “It was essentially light hearted banter in private and the Somali never heard. This is political correctness gone mad.”

Ms Thomas received race hate mail at the police station, and the following week The Sun published readers’ letters attacking her for making the complaint and ruining the sergeants’ careers. These were followed by a story seeking readers’ contributions to pay the PC’s fine.

At Lambeth County Court, Ms Thomas chose to sue The Sun under the Protection Against Harassment Act, which came into force in 1997. The purpose of this Act was to protect the victims of stalkers, but it does not spell out what behaviour amounts to harassment. It simply says that speech is covered, that there must be a “course of conduct” and that the conduct must cause the victim alarm or distress. In a private hearing, The Sun asked that the action be struck out or a judgement entered in its favour, arguing that the case was hopeless and had no legal basis. But Judge Roger Cox rejected the paper’s plea. “The Act,” he said, “does give to the claimant a right to protection from harassment by all the world, including the press.”

In predictable quarters, Judge Cox’s ruling was received with delight. Geoffrey Bindman, a media solicitor who acts for Keith Vaz among others, was quoted in The Guardian: “It’s very good news. It is highly desirable that there should be a remedy for innocent people who are hounded by the media and whose lives are seriously damaged by media harassment.”

PressWise would not argue with the last sentence, but the fact is that such a remedy already exists. It is called the Human Rights Act, and vitally (unlike the Protection Against Harassment Act) it contains balancing provisions to protect freedom of speech and publication in the public interest. If a case cannot be made under this legislation, then it should not be brought. There is also the small matter of the Press Complaints Commission, but it may be a commentary on that body’s perceived effectiveness (or lack of it) that Ms Thomas apparently chose not to bother with it.

It was clearly never the intention of Parliament that the Protection of Harassment Act, which deals with quite a different problem, should be used in this way. The Sun is appealing, and the case may well end up in the House of Lords. For once, all those who believe in responsible press freedom should support Mr Murdoch’s tabloid all the way.

Bill Norris
Associate Director

(Bulletin No 40)

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