Police broke reporting restriction in story written for force's 'news' website by press officer who didn't attend court

A police force has defended publishing stories on its website as “in the public interest” after it broke a reporting restriction to include the new home address of a domestic abuse victim in a court report.

The report containing the banned detail appeared on the “news” section of Sussex Police’s website (pictured), which is written by its press office, in February and was subsequently picked up by local newspapers.

The force told Press Gazette: “We published the press release about the sentencing in good faith, but were then informed that a restriction had been made banning the publication of the defendant’s address.

“As soon as this was known, we deleted the address from the press release, updated it to this effect and informed the media.”

Freelance journalist Barry Keevins, who regularly reports on Sussex courts for national titles, said police had also included details in its coverage of a child sex abuse case that lead to the jigsaw identification of the victims when combined with his copy.

The story was published by a national website and newspaper as well as a regional daily title.

Keevins said he had been the only journalist in court for the trial and had successfully opposed a blanket reporting restriction on the case, with support from The Times, adding: “We agreed in court what we could and couldn’t say and [police] weren’t there and published something that identified the person.”

Sussex Police has rejected the claim, saying: “We and the Crown Prosecution Service considered that we complied with the law and with an additional court order made during the trial.

“The officer in the case, who supplied the information to the press office, was present throughout the trial and was informed of the court order, and we consider that the information published does not enable a ‘jigsaw effect’ identification.

“If there are concerns about information in a particular case allegedly being published in contravention of the law or any additional court orders, these should be taken up with the court.

“We are not aware that this has happened in this case.”

Keevins, who has freelanced for 17 years, said police regularly wrote reports on trial outcomes without having attended court in person.

“I don’t think they should be providing court copy when they are not in court,” he said.

“They are going on the word of the officer in the case usually. I have got no problem with that, but they aren’t a court reporter and they don’t pay attention to details of what can be reported and what can’t.

“Also, if you aren’t there to hear when a contempt order is made, you don’t know that [it’s been made].”

He added: “If I wrote a court story without being in court I would be in serious trouble.”

Keevins also complained that police were acting as a publisher but without the responsibility that comes with it.

“By any reasonable standard of who is a publisher and who is not [Sussex Police] are a publisher, because they have a website which says ‘news’ and they write stories for it,” he said.

“If they are providing a public service then they should be subject to the same checks and balances as the rest of us. And if they are providing it, they aren’t doing a very good job of it.”

He added: “I don’t agree with [press] regulation personally, but if we are going to have it then let’s have it.

“For me it’s also an old fashioned demarcation issue. This is impeding on my ability to make money here and they have an advantage over me because they are doing it for free.”

In a statement, Sussex Police told Press Gazette: “Information about court cases and outcomes is regularly published by Sussex Police, as it is with all police forces, which is in the public interest.

“It is used by local, regional and national news media outlets, particularly bearing in mind the difficulty many outlets now have in covering cases themselves.

“In publishing, we comply with all relevant legislation and any additional court orders in individual cases, but are clearly not bound by any agreements that individual journalists may have arranged amongst themselves without consulting anyone else.”