The Media Column: 'What justice is there in the Hamiltons' lying accuser selling her anonymity?'

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The Independent Online

Is freedom of the press always worth fighting for? Should the newspaper industry sometimes admit - quietly, of course, old boy - that there are some matters that ought to be off limits? I ask because this week The Newspaper Society, the trade body that represents 1,300 regional and local titles across the country, stepped up its lobbying campaign against a clause in the Sexual Offences Bill that would grant anonymity to men accused of rape. The society has written to the Home Office, declaring that such a move would be an attack on "fair and accurate court reporting" and on "the vital role of the press in the maintenance of the principle of open justice".

The organisation is pushing at an open door. The anonymity clause, inserted into the Bill during the report stage by a former Lord Justice of Appeal, Lord Ackner, is likely to be removed when the Bill returns to the House of Commons, shortly. The Home Office says that it will seek to overturn Lord Ackner's amendment.

But should it? The law already grants anonymity to alleged rape victims. Would there not be a symmetry in granting the same right to the other side - a right that would, obviously, evaporate if the accused were found guilty?

Ask Neil and Christine Hamilton whether their suffering, after being wrongly but publicly accused of the most ludicrous sexual attack, was a price worth paying for open justice. What justice is there in the fact that the Hamiltons' lying accuser chose to sell her anonymity to the News of the World for £50,000?

The Newspaper Society says that if we allow alleged rapists to keep their names out of the papers, we will soon be urged to protect people accused of robbery, blackmail or murder. No one is arguing for that - nor should they. The assumption should always be in favour of disclosure. But rape does carry a unique stigma. We rightly recognise this in respect of alleged victims. I do not see what harm it would cause to recognise it for alleged perpetrators - just as long as they know that a guilty verdict will instantly remove that protection.

I can see room for one exception. If the police believe that the publication of the name of a suspected serial rapist will encourage other victims to come forward, let them apply to a judge for his anonymity to be removed. (And make sure the resultant court case is kept a good distance away from the public appeal.)

And as for those newspaper editors who think the removal of their right to publish names will spell the end of a free press, please can they let me know what disasters befell democracy between 1976 and 1988. For 12 years, between the passing of the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Act and the Criminal Justice Act, rape defendants were granted anonymity in this country. Newspapers may have been deprived of a few sensational stories about men who went on to be proved innocent. But justice did not collapse - nor did free and fair journalism.

* The "comedy terrorist" Aaron Barschak has missed a trick. If he is fully to exploit his brief brush with fame, he needs to capitalise on the brief window of his career between "amusing eccentric" and "tiresome bore".

Thanks to the top-notch steam-room contacts of The Guardian's diarist, Matthew Norman - he and Barschak's father are regulars at the Porchester Spa Turkish baths, in Bayswater, west London - we know that Barschak picked up £50,000 from the Daily Mail for his tale and turned down £80,000 from The Sun.

But he could have made a great deal more, had he turned to advertising. Ron Leagas, managing director at Saatchi's in the "Labour isn't working" days, tells me that Barschak "could earn £100,000 for a day's filming". Leagas, now chairman of the Edge Ideas agency, says Barschak's cheeky anti-establishment persona would play well in a TV commercial for any product whose unique proposition is the notion of security - "anything from tampons to Group 4".

Alas, it seems that the people from Tampax have not been in touch with Barschak. Unlucky viewers will have to make do with the traditional roller skaters and blue-ink demonstrations.

* Top marks to Matthew Parris. In a touching three-page tribute in The Times to Sir Denis Thatcher, Parris admitted that he "never knew Denis better than as my boss's husband". He added: "Nor - mark my words - does anybody else who is likely to write newspaper articles about him this week."

Matthew, stop such talk at once! You may call it honesty; I call it dangerous. There will be a lot of blank newspaper pages if hacks are restricted to writing about what we know. Incidentally, next week in this space I shall be turning my expert analysis on to an issue of great importance that has been troubling me for some time. When I understand what the hell it is.