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Alfie Patten: what have we learned about reporting restrictions?

May 19, 2009 3 Comments

A judge has finally lifted the reporting restrictions on revealing that Alfie Patten is not a dad at age 12 - the baby is some other kid's.

So what have we learned about reporting restrictions in the age of blogs? (Hint: they don't work, as the following timeline shows).

Timeline of reporting on Alfie

Google News breaches order

Martin Belam revealed almost straight away that Google news was breaching the terms of the reporting restrictions.

Bloggers hastily withdraw stories blogged about the story - then pulled it, saying: "Hopefully nobody noticed that until this morning I had a new post about the media’s coverage of Alfie Patten on this site. I really should have been aware that the reporting of new details of this case is forbidden thanks to a court ruling, something that was helpfully pointed out through the comments section."

Bloggers caught in catch 22 - system broken

I then pointed out that reporting restrictions don't really work for blogs, as there is no way for bloggers to know they exist (and if they don't know they exist, they're not bound by them): "Court orders forbidding publication of certain facts usually apply only to people or companies who receive them. This means there is nothing to stop bloggers publishing material that news organisations would risk fines and prison for publishing. Even if a blogger knows there is an order, and so could be considered bound by it, an absurd catch 22 means they can't found out the details of the order - and so they risk contempt of court and prison."

Mainstream news sites breach order

Then I revealed that Brand Republic and Walt Disney were breaching the terms of the order (presumably because they didn't know it existed - which means they weren't bound by it).

Shortly after that, I found ITV to be in breach of it. They did know it existed, but their auto-google-news box could easily be made to show headlines from non-UK news sites that revealed that Alfie wasn't the dad. I emailed ITV's legal department about this. Twice. They did nothing about it.

No one's told Google ...

Throughout the entire period, searching for Alfie Patten at Google would return headlines from foreign news sources revealing that Alfie wasn't the father.

It transires that the court order was never sent to google news, so they weren't bound by it: "We investigate removal requests based on court order violations once the court order (and the pages they want us to remove that allegedly infringe on the court order) have been brought to our attention," said a Google spokesman. "To date, we have not received a court order relating to [this] case."

(It also transpired that if you contact about a story, they'll run the same story but without any link back to you. Boo).


So that was it. Throughout the whole period, searching for Alfie Patten at Google would return news stories from abroad that he wasn't the father.

Several sites published that fact while the court order was in force and took the story down only slowly (and only when I had tweeted it a lot, and several people pitched up to read my posts by email). It also appeared in several forums like this and this. There were others.

On the one hand, the reporting restrictions stopped widespread broadcast of the facts that were covered. On the other, anyone who wanted to find out the story could - and many people who didn't know there was a story covered by reporting restrictions would easily have come across it.

I'm not sure what the solution is - but I'm sure one aspect is a centralised database of reporting restrictions in general terms (ie not all the detail so it's like an issue of popbitch). Just what is the point of reporting restrictions if no one knows they exist?

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  3. Do blogs make reporting restrictions pointless?
  4. Super injunctions and Twitter: Alfie Patten, John Terry, [redacted] and [redacted]
  5. Twitter and super injunctions: no one need pack their toothbrush

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