First of all, apart from Sir Jimmy Savile, I am not going to mention any names in this post. I would ask too that people commenting on this thread refrain from naming anyone either.
The Metropolitan Police inquiries into the activities of the former TV star have three main strands.
- One is looking specifically at the actions of Savile.
- The second strand concerns allegations against “Savile and others”.
- The third – named “others” – relates to alleged complaints against other people unconnected to the Jimmy Savile investigations.
As the BBC reported yesterday, ten people have been arrested and one suspect was interviewed under caution.
On each occasion so far that someone has been arrested the media have covered the story, naming the suspect, and, of course, not seeking to suggest any guilt. After all, the presumption of innocence applies.
In almost every case so far a common factor has been that, if you look at previous publicity regarding the individuals, there have been “questions” about them, or they are seen as somehow less than universally popular. (By that I do NOT mean to suggest rumours of criminal activity, but rather that the people provoked, in some, negative opinions.)
Over the last couple of days another apparently well-known person has been arrested. I have not seen any main stream media outlet naming the person. (If there has been such an instance, then I have missed it, but in any event this arrest has had far less publicity given to it as regards the name of the accused than any other so far).
Perhaps it is not coincidence but the person named elsewhere as the latest to be arrested IS universally popular. It is hard, even if you look for it, to find anything negative said about them.
We therefore have an interesting conundrum.
There is the presumption of innocence in this country. Arrest or charge does not establish guilt. The press believe, rightly, that reporting on issues of criminal law, whilst obeying the rules on contempt of court, defamation and libel is a necessary part of a democratic society.
However, especially in areas such as those resulting from the Yewtree inquiries, mere mention of a person’s name as an accused almost certainly will have a devastating effect on the person, and their family. That applies even if the allegations are entirely different and of an infinitely less serious scale than those made against Sir Jimmy Savile. (And by that I do not mean to label any allegations made as “trivial” but, as with any criminal offences, there is a scale of seriousness, depending on the nature of the offence, the circumstances of the victim and any relationship or connection with the accused).
It is not unknown for people facing serious criminal allegations, especially of a criminal nature, to do harm to themselves, sometimes fatally. This is particularly so once publicity is given to their case, whether before, during or after trial.
If we take a celebrity, called for these purposes Joe Bloggs (and no reference is intended to anyone of that name in real life), how will they cope in future having been identified as involved in the Yewtree inquiry?
First of all, if convicted in court they will be punished according to the law. That is simple enough.
If Mr Bloggs was convicted of only one comparatively trivial offence, rather than the most serious ones being looked at by Yewtree, then he would find himself forever linked to the investigation, but his guilt would make the matter of that association less severe.
What if Mr Bloggs is acquitted, or if the Crown Prosecution Service decides not to proceed with a prosecution “on the grounds of insufficient evidence”?
Mr Bloggs will then find himself forever linked in the public’s mind with the crimes of Sir Jimmy Savile. The “no smoke without fire” brigade will be out in force.
People who gain their knowledge of the news from certain papers will never see the story of the acquittal or the dropping of charges portrayed with the prominence of the arrest or trial. Because people would wonder, if they saw Mr Bloggs on TV after acquittal, “how can that man be allowed on TV?” most TV companies would, I imagine, decline to use his services.
In a case like this media coverage of the arrest, even if staying firmly within the bounds of the law and fairness, has the same effect on the public view as a conviction.
These arguments are behind the regular attempts to have anonymity for the accused, whether in all criminal cases, or in those where anonymity is already given to the accuser. Those attempts have always failed, and will continue to do so.
Should criminal cases against prominent, famous or influential people be allowed to proceed in camera then it creates the possibility or perception that such people might benefit from their position, and achieve an outcome which would not be open to the commonality of people.
The media insist, rightly so, that they are entitled to publicise matters in accordance with the law, and the arrest and subsequent charging and prosecution of individuals falls into that category.
But when we have what seems to have occurred over the last couple of days – where there seems to have been the arrest of an undoubtedly popular person but the press have very carefully refrained from naming them – it undermines the argument that they have a duty to publish.
As an individual, I do tend towards the anonymity for the accused stance, perhaps until the matter reaches trial. I can see why, in the present instance, there is reluctance to name the person. I agree with that. But it suggests that, in other cases, editors might have looked at the name on the latest news report and said “No one likes him” and asked their Crime Reporter to get a piece written for the front page immediately.
So where does this lead to?
It shows how hard and responsible a job the editors of the mainstream media have. They know that their decisions to name an arrested person could have dramatic and irretrievable consequences for such an individual and their family.
It shows that this is an area of the law where there needs to be renewed efforts to find a solution which is fair to all involved. But that is a Gordian Knot of a problem.
It shows that there is a lot to be gained from being universally popular with the press, and someone against whom no one says a bad word.
It also shows how, in doing what right thinking people would view as the “right thing” by not publishing this person’s identity, it shows that the apparently principled stance of the press in insisting on publishing details in other cases, despite the consequences for the accused, is not in fact based on a universally applicable principle.
Let us hope that those who are guilty are convicted and punished according to law, and that those who are innocent are accepted as such. But I suspect that, for everyone already named as arrested under Yewtree, even if cleared without a stain on their characters, the damage, and critical and lifelong damage at that, has been done already.
Posted by Paul McConville
NB As I said at the top of the piece, please don’t name anyone in the comments who has been mentioned, or even rumoured to be mentioned, as part of these inquiries.