Stalking, and the tricky issue of identifying the victim


One month into the new year and whilst journalists (and their lawyers!) remain very busy, it’s been a relatively quiet time in terms of big, newsworthy, decisions from the Courts. 

But fear not: an interesting point has caught our attention, so this week, we are revisiting the offence of stalking. 

Stalking is a terrifying experience for victims, and because it can take a variety of forms, it is sometimes difficult for journalists to know how best to report an incident. 

In recent weeks and months, a number of high profile individuals have revealed that they were victims of stalking.  In one instance, the question we were asked to consider was whether victims of stalking have automatic rights to anonymity, and so can only be identified if they sign waivers.

All reporters know that victims, or alleged victims, of sexual offences are entitled to lifelong anonymity (pursuant to the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Act 1992).  Journalists also know that this right can be waived by the alleged victim giving written consent to identification.

Stalking is a very personal and often grossly intimate offence which can destroy lives and cause huge damage to those targeted.  So you may therefore be surprised to learn that stalking, of itself, is not an offence covered by the 1992 Act. 

Rather, the law which protects victims from stalkers is contained in the Protection from Harassment Act 1997, which was updated in 2012 specifically to deal with this issue.  This means that victims of stalkers are not automatically entitled to anonymity and there is no legal necessity to gain a waiver when planning to identify an individual as a victim of stalking.

However, more often than not, stalking does not take place in isolation.  Frequently, it is accompanied one of the many sexual offences covered by the 1992 Act.  In practice, what this means is that reporters must have a detailed understanding of the underlying facts, and then make a judgement call as to whether they are reporting on a pure stalking incident, or whether the story is actually about an (alleged) sexual offence.

Interestingly, neither the Editors’ Code of Practice (which applies to members of IPSO) nor the Standards Code (to which members of IMPRESS adhere) address the issue of stalking directly. 

But both Codes make it very clear that there must be no identification of the victims of sexual offences except to the extent permitted by the law.  In this respect, the two Codes mirror the law. 

In passing, it is noteworthy that the Editors’ Code prohibits the identification of the victims of sexual assaults, whereas the Standards Code gives anonymity to the victims of sexual offences, which on the face of it is different (and wider).  However, in the context of the law, it is difficult to envisage any circumstances in which the more limited wording of the Editors’ Code actually makes any difference in practice.

In summary, therefore, it is when the background facts are less than clear that reporters would be wise to exercise caution and request the alleged victim to sign a waiver as to identification. 

It may be a quiet time for media law in the Courts, but important topics are still cropping up which journalists should note and act upon.

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