The Education Act 2011 which was given Royal Assent last week contains a provision restricting the reporting of alleged offences by teachers where the complainant is a pupil at the school in which they teach.
When this Act comes into effect, it will be a criminal offence to publish allegations of this sort against a teacher.
There is a defence available for publishers who can prove that they were unaware either a) that the publication contained reports of such an allegation; or b) that the allegation against the teacher had been made.
The Act also contains protective provisions for service providers who are merely hosting information.
The reporting restrictions will end if the teacher is charged with an offence or if the teacher agrees to waive his/her anonymity.
There will also be a procedure for challenging the restriction on the grounds that it is not in the interests of justice. However there will be no public interest defence, despite calls having been made urging the inclusion of one, as the Bill proceeded through Parliament.
The new Act has met with strong resistance and provoked great concern amongst the press. Both The Society of Editors and the Newspaper Society have been vocal in their opposition to the Act and its effect on freedom of speech.
By preventing anyone (including the school itself, parents, pupils etc) from reporting allegations, the fear is that issues may be swept under the carpet and teachers’ behavioural records will become opaque.
Serious questions have been raised as to whether the Act will be expanded or mimicked to apply the same or similar protection of anonymity to other professionals.
As Education Select Committee chair Graham Stuart asked rhetorically: “This might be the thin end of the wedge in which we will see a great deal more press censorship and people will not be able to know allegations made against people in their local community.”
The arguments used to justify the reporting restrictions in relation to teachers could be equally relevant to other professions. If teachers need special treatment, why not all school employees including teaching assistants (not currently covered under the new Act), care-takers and caterers? Why not social workers and other health workers?
The list of those who could make a case for similar provisions suddenly becomes pretty long.
The ramifications of this Act will be felt most greatly by the regional press, whose raison d’être is to comment on their local communities and highlight any matters which may be of interest or concern to those living in a particular area. Local education provision is at the forefront of any community.
As a result of this Act, people will no longer be fully aware of what is alleged to be happening within their local schools.
Currently there has been no date set for this Act to come into force. When that does happen, journalists will have to exercise caution in order to stay within the parameters of the law.
Let’s hope that this does not turn out to be the ‘thin end of the wedge’.