i Editor's Letter: Are Britain's libel laws in need of an update?


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The Independent Online


What did you think yesterday when Rolf Harris was revealed by the media to be the 83-year-old entertainer from Berkshire arrested by Operation Yewtree officers on suspicion of sexual offences and bailed until May?

We at i, in common with other newsrooms, had known about this since Rolf’s original interview in November, but the police chose not to confirm it was him. Mr Harris was named on Twitter, blog-sites like Guido Fawkes and by media in his native Australia. Despite months of terrible poor-taste jokes and common knowledge among journalists and tweeters, what still masquerades as the mainstream media played by the rules, mindful of Britain’s draconian libel laws.

Is that a good or bad thing? Do you think we should have been free to add Rolf’s name to those of Freddie Starr, Dave Lee Travis, Jim Davidson, Max Clifford and others arrested in connection with the investigation? All deny wrong-doing. What do we gain from knowing their names?

Some of you may know of Neil Wallis, ex-deputy-editor of the News of the World who was arrested in connection with a very different investigation, the phone-hacking saga. “Wolfman” Wallis had been bailed for a total of 21 months before being told in February there would be no charges. You may not feel sorry for a former senior tabloid hack but, prejudice aside, here was a man who had lost his job and had his reputation besmirched; who, together with his family, endured severe emotional and financial stresses for 21 months without charge. Why?

There remains in Britain a legal presumption of innocence until proven guilty. But even innocence does not free you of the stigma of arrest. I admit I don’t know the answer here, but the whole process leaves me feeling very uncomfortable. Am I alone?