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Law Column: Is ‘Cliff’s Law’ the future on anonymity?

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This week, we will be looking into the most recent call to prevent the media from naming suspects before being charged with a criminal offence.

With more and more high profile examples hitting our headlines (the most recent being the couple arrested, but later cleared of all wrongdoing, over the Gatwick Drone scandal), is ‘Cliff’s Law’ the future?

As I am sure everyone will have seen, Sir Cliff Richard won a landmark legal fight against the BBC last year over the BBC’s coverage of the raid on this home by South Yorkshire Police. The Police investigation was subsequently dropped and the Police never charged or arrested Sir Cliff.

Sir Cliff has announced he is joining other public figures calling for a change in the law to protect the anonymity of people suspected of sexual offences until they are actually charged with a crime. Falsely Accused Individuals for Reform (FAIR) was launched by presenter Paul Gambaccini and former MP Harvey Proctor, and the group want to meet the Home Secretary to set out their case. FAIR argues that it is time to change the law to prevent innocent people from having their reputations damaged in the media.

So, what is the Government saying?

According to a Home Office Minister who spoke in a House of Lords during the debate on the second reading of the Anonymity (Arrested Persons) Bill, the Government is currently ‘not persuaded’ by plans for anonymous arrests.

It has been reported that a number of people, notably Lord Paddick, are pushing to make it illegal for anyone to name someone publicly who is arrested by the Police. The basis for this is the proposition that innocent individuals are having their reputations ruined.

However, and rightly so, Baroness Williams said there must be a balance between the freedom of press and the right to privacy. She noted that publicity has encouraged victims of sexual assault to come forward and the immensely powerful #MeToo movement is a “living testament to this”. It is safe to say that had those individuals not been named, the #MeToo movement would be very different.

If new legislation were to be enacted, it would make it illegal to name someone who has been arrested but not charged in the press. The prohibition would cease to have effect when the arrested person was charged.

Lord Paddick also said his bill would require journalists to seek approval from a judge to release names in the public interest, for someone who is arrested, but at that point currently not charged.

If such a bill ever became law, the adverse effect on journalism and working journalists is obvious. In addition to the effect on journalists, such a provision would make the job of the Police much more difficult. The frequently used Police tactic of using the media to appeal for victims or witnesses would disappear overnight. As journalists would be required to seek approval from a judge to release the name, this would place additional burdens on the Courts.

During the most recent debate, Lord Marks also raised questions about the lifetime anonymity of victims of sexual offences and whether this should be revised and whether the balance should be tipped back in favour of the suspect. This was based on looking at the issue of justice for the uncharged suspect against the justice to the public. This would be a huge change to the current law and is one which is very unlikely to happen.

Baroness Williams stated that “we do recognise the importance of debating these issues and we will keep the position under review”. It appears the new pressure group seems set for a long campaign, so we can expect to hear more from them over the coming months and years.

It’s reassuring that changes won’t be happening in the short term, but the concern is that with more high profile backing, this is an issue which will not be going away.

Watch this space.

4 comments

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  • March 26, 2019 at 11:02 am
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    Looking at it as a human being rather than a hack looking for a scoop I hope this law is passed. It is against all natural justice for anyone, famous or not, to be named when they have only been arrested and not charged. The test is, would you like it to happen to you? People will assume guilt because that is the vindictive society we now live in. The Cliff Richard case was a classic example of how wrong people can be.
    As for that hoary old excuse that some people would have seen an incident anyway, that does not stop the incident being reported. But it is unfair and unjust to spread someone’s name far and wide when no charge has been brought.

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  • March 26, 2019 at 5:56 pm
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    Sorry – don’t agree. My argument is that if someone is named then a possible victim might come forward as a witness whereas if the arrested person is kept anonymous that victim might not be aware of what is happening and so won’t come forward. Apart from that if police raid a person’s house, whether famous or not, then rumours will abound even more than already happens on Twitter etc.

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  • March 26, 2019 at 5:58 pm
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    I should have added that naming people caught up in a police raid or whatever is as old as the hills and it is only now that there are those who say”oh we should not name the person caught up in the raid.” I have been involved in stories where naming the person has actually helped them.

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  • March 26, 2019 at 6:32 pm
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    I respect your comments wordsmith, but I don’t agree that just because it has always been done it has been right. How many lives got blighted in that time? As for that old argument about helping to bring other supposed victims forward, that would still happen after charges were announced (and the name released) and the CPS could quite easily add extra charges. As you know there is usually plenty of time lapse between charges and trial. Rest my case m’lord.

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