Ban on Jo Yeates-style media speculation planned
Tim Edwards on the bill to outlaw the naming of murder suspects until they are charged
A private member's bill that would ban the media from naming a suspect until the police had charged him has a good chance of becoming law after it received the backing of Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke and Attorney General Dominic Grieve.
Something like this bill, proposed by Conservative MP Anna Soubry, seemed inevitable following the lurid reports surrounding every detail of the life of Chris Jefferies (above), the retired Bristol teacher who was arrested on suspicion of - but never charged with - the murder of his tenant Jo Yeates in December.
Earlier this month, another man, Vincent Tabak was arrested and this time was charged with Yeates's murder.
On both occasions, the name of the arrested man came out before charges could be placed. Although 'guidance' issued by the Association of Chief Police Officers already recommends not naming suspects before they are charged, police sometimes reveal the age of a person arrested, as in the cases of Jefferies and Tabak.
It is normally quite simple for journalists to then join the dots and work out the identity of the person under suspicion.
Soubry told the Sunday Times: "When Jefferies was arrested on the most serious charge possible, his name and address were reported and there was then a feeding frenzy about every tiny aspect of his life.
"The law as it stands means an innocent person can be vilified, have their lives dismantled and their reputation sullied with complete disregard to his or her right to privacy. Since the media don't seem able to regulate themselves, parliament should do something about it."
The move represents something of a U-turn for the government since the coalition proposed and then abandoned a law only last year that would have granted anonymity to men suspected of rape until they were charged.
Justice Minister Crispin Blunt said at the time he was unconvinced at the case for anonymity, saying that the inability to publicise a person's identity might "prevent further witnesses to a known offence from coming forward."
Speaking for the media about Anna Soubry's bill, Bob Satchwell, executive director of the Society of Editors, said: "The public are entitled to know when someone is arrested and not naming people who are arrested only leads to speculation and rumour in place of absolute fact."
Satchwell added that there were laws of libel and contempt of court to stop the media from overstepping the mark. Indeed, since Jefferies's unpleasant experience at the hands of the press, he has threatened to take legal action against the media and police.
The problem is that Soubry's proposal, if she wants to protect the innocent from vilification, does not go far enough. To be really effective, her law would have to ban reporting the name of people until they had been proven guilty in a court of law - a prospect that raises the issue of how free we want our press to be.
Comments are now closed on this article