Operation Bullfinch: how to handle a tricky story

April 2012

Regular reporting is tough enough to get right – but when you’re covering a crime story involving the sex trafficking of underage girls, it’s a legal and ethical minefield. And that’s before you think about how to handle your relationship with the police. But when the Oxford Mail newsdesk found out about Operation Bullfinch, the police investigation into an Oxford child prostitution ring, reporters rose to the challenge.

Jason Collie, assistant editor, describes the situation as a “powder keg”, but points out that it’s a journalist’s job to negotiate tricky situations (and understand the relevant law) rather than shying away from difficult stories. A good working relationship with Thames Valley Police was useful. “I think we were greatly helped by TVP in terms of letting us know the details they could. However, it was more restricted than previous briefings because of the complex case and the people involved.”

Jason believes that “everybody is very nervous about police/journalist relationships” after the Leveson inquiry. But negotiation between police and journalists is crucial, which means you can’t let fear get in the way. In the case of Operation Bullfinch, there were some details which the police asked the Oxford Mail not to report. The Oxford Mail listened to TVP’s arguments and made informed decisions on a case-by-case basis. “We had to listen to their concerns. It’s a good example of police and press working together and having an adult discussion instead of being paralysed by fear.”

Legal reporting restrictions were another issue to take into account. In the UK, victims of sex crimes are automatically entitled to anonymity, so the Oxford Mail was legally obliged to leave out any identifying details. But Jason points out that even if this wasn’t the letter of the law, it would be a matter of basic journalistic ethics to avoid causing any further distress to the victims. “We wouldn’t ever want to do anything to identify these young ladies. We have a job to do, but we have to do it in a way that won’t add to their problems.”

In this particular case the prosecutor took the unusual step of amending the indictment so that the victims aren’t even named there. They are referred to by initials as an extra precaution against their identities being revealed, probably because of the vulnerability of the victims and the high level of public interest in the case.

Other reporting restrictions were less justified. For example, a district judge placed a Section 39 order on the victims. (This means placing a ban on the identification of a person under 18 who is concerned in adult court proceedings, under Section 39 of the Children and Young Persons Act 1933.) This was unnecessary because reporters were already banned from identifying the victims under standard sexual offences reporting rules.

It is surprisingly common for judges to apply Section 39 incorrectly, and many such incorrectly applied orders have been successfully challenged by journalists. But in this case, there was no point in the Oxford Mail doing so. “There are minor irritations. This kind of doubling up is not needed, but is it something we really want to stand up and fight over?” If a legal point like this actually did affect reporting, they would take it to Crown Court. “But she [the district judge] was being cautious, and you have to accept that.”

One legal restriction they did question was an order preventing them from reporting a related hearing. This hearing, involving an Oxfordshire businessman, took place in the same building (High Wycombe magistrates’ court) as the main hearing for the six men accused of involvement in the alleged child prostitution ring. (The businessman in question was not one of the six charged.) Despite opposition from the Oxford Mail, a district judge decided to hold the hearing in camera, excluding both press and public. The Mail reporter was forced to leave the courtroom. But, as Jason comments, being excluded from the hearing was a story in itself.

The story of Operation Bullfinch was, unsurprisingly, picked up by the nationals, and reporters at the Mail are relieved that wider coverage didn’t cause any problems for local reporters trying to cover the story. “There was concern that the nationals would come in and stamp all over the story in their size 12 boots and we’d be left to deal with the mess.” The team is also proud that national reporting didn’t cover anything that wasn’t already covered by the Oxford Mail. “It was good to see the nationals on Friday and see that they haven’t picked up anything we missed... it’s not the case that we’re a small local paper and the nationals come in and do it properly. We covered everything they did.”

So does Jason have any tips for covering a story of this sensitive nature? First, go with your gut instinct. Second, be aware that you’re dealing with people’s lives. “How would you feel to be on the receiving end of this kind of coverage?” Last but not least, “Seek advice from editors and news editors. We’ve all learnt from more senior people and we’re passing knowledge down.”