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By Jonathan Isaby
Yesterday saw the Second Reading debate of the Private Member's Bill being promoted by Broxtowe Conservative MP, Anna Soubry.
Soubry, who has worked a both a journalist and a barrister, explained the reasoning behind the Anonymity (Arrested Persons) Bill thus:
"In the past, the press did not publish the name and address of someone when they were arrested, but waited until they were charged to do so. Over the past few years, that has all changed. The press not only publish the name and address of someone when they have been arrested but they give more details. As we have recently seen with events in Bristol, it has reached the stage where many of us believe it has got to stop. A great wrong is being done, and it is time that it was righted. That is what I seek to do—to stop this sort of reporting."
"I mentioned events in Bristol. Let me make it clear that I do not intend to name anybody, and I am sure that hon. Members will also be keen not to name anybody, save for this: I do not think there is anybody who is not aware of the publicity and media coverage that was given to the first man who was arrested following the murder of Joanna Yeates. It is right and fair to say that everybody with any sense of decency and sensibility has accepted that the coverage of that individual was, if not outrageous, as I believe it was, certainly unacceptable and plain wrong. It is as if we had forgotten that one is innocent in this land until proven guilty. Unfortunately, it is not the first time that that has happened, but it is the most extreme case that we have seen.
"Everyone tends to forget that on being arrested, a person suffers the trauma of the arrest. It is difficult to imagine a worse accusation than to be accused of taking somebody’s life, raping someone or doing something horrible to a child. There is the trauma of the process and the nature of the allegation, and on top of that, the person’s name and address appear in the local paper. If it is a high-profile case, they appear in the national papers.
"What we saw in Bristol was, in effect, a feeding frenzy and vilification. Much of the coverage was not only completely irrelevant, but there was a homophobic tone to it which I found deeply offensive. The slurs on the man were out of order. All good and decent people in this country accept that. I include in that number fellow journalists.
"I might have to explain, although perhaps not to everyone in this place, why it is wrong for people who are arrested to have their names published in the newspapers. A slur is placed on them, because the attitude that there is no smoke without fire always prevails. At this juncture, I should explain that the police must have reasonable suspicion before arresting someone, but there is a good argument that they are perhaps a little too keen to secure an arrest. Members may remember the expression, which was used in newspapers and on television and the radio, that a man of such and such an age was “assisting the police with their inquiries”. There now seems to be more of a tendency in those circumstances for the police to arrest someone to secure their attendance at the police station and ensure that the provisions of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 are abided by, because being an arrested person gives that individual certain rights once they are in the police station. The police need only a reasonable suspicion to arrest someone.
"However, individuals are charged only when there is at least a prima facie case, and charging normally comes towards the end of an investigation when all the evidence has been gathered and considered. In serious cases, the charging decision is shared with the Crown Prosecution Service, sometimes with leading counsel brought in so that the right charge is decided upon. The CPS and the police will have gone through various tests to decide, for instance, whether it is in the public interest to charge an individual, whether there is a reasonable chance of conviction and so on. By the time they come to charge the individual, therefore, they are a long way down the track in an investigation, and hopefully closer to securing the right person to be placed in the dock, because once someone is charged, they are very swiftly in court."
Responding to the debate, Justice Minister Crispin Blunt said that at this time the Government could not support a statutory prohibition on the reporting of arrests pre-charge and therefore would not be supporting the Bill.
"Under the present law, the media are broadly free to report the identity of suspects at all stages of the criminal process—when they are under investigation, when they are arrested, and when they are charged. The media are free also to report criminal trials, subject to a range of statutory and common law reporting restrictions, which are designed to protect the integrity of criminal proceedings. There are protections in the law to try to stop individuals being pilloried in the press, including libel provisions and, where comment may be prejudicial to any future proceedings, contempt. Taken together, these arrangements reflect our long and proud common law tradition of open justice."
"I urge a degree of caution. The Government only recently withdrew our commitment set out in the coalition programme to grant anonymity in rape cases to defendants, having discovered on closer examination that there was insufficient evidence either for or against the proposal. That ought to alert us to the sensitivities of intervening in this area."
"This country has a long and proud tradition of media independence, an important part of which is self-regulation. It is not impossible to question how effectively that self-regulation is operating, but we should not interfere with it lightly. Any interventions on the subject need significant reflection and widespread consultation, and they should proceed as far as possible on the basis of consensus.
"Secondly, it is noticeable that, compared with previous initiatives, the Bill imposes anonymity on an all-crime basis, applying to all criminal offences alike, including purely summary offences. That represents a departure from the view, evident in previous proposals, that anonymity may be justified only to address specific difficulties—for example, where particular kinds of offence are concerned."
"Although I thank my hon. Friend for airing these issues, we cannot support them today. What is at stake is the balance between competing interests and we need to get that right. I support the idea that we need to avoid unfounded slurs and speculation damaging the lives of innocent people. Punishments before and without trial are wrong. Equally, the media have raised the prospect of a world of “secret arrests and anonymised justice”. That is not where we would like to end up either.
"What I can say, which I hope will offer a degree of reassurance to my hon. Friend, is that the Government do not intend to ignore the issues she has raised. We intend to consider whether the laws on contempt and pre-charge reporting contain gaps that may impede justice…The laws on contempt and pre-charge reporting merit further consideration because of the complexity of the regulation in this area and the interests that need to be balanced carefully. This debate is important enough to deserve clarity, not confusion. That may take some time. I know that there are strong views on all sides of this debate and I look forward to debating it further in due course, having had the benefit of further consideration by the Attorney-General."
On the basis that the Government is taking on board her concerns and that the Attorney-General is to examine the issues raised, Anna Soubry then peoceeded to withdraw her Bill.