Tory MP calls for ban on naming of suspects

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The press should be banned from reporting the name of a suspect arrested by police until the person is charged, the Commons heard today.

Tory Anna Soubry, a former journalist and barrister, made her call after what she called the "outrageous" reporting of the Jo Yeates murder case in Bristol.

She said the media had failed to regulate itself and it was time for lawmakers to act to prevent a "great wrong being done".

Ms Soubry (Broxtowe) said the coverage of the arrest of Ms Yeates' landlord Chris Jeffries was "unacceptable and plain wrong" and led to his "vilification".

Mr Jeffries, 66, was arrested on suspicion of murder before being released on bail.

Miss Yeates' next-door neighbour Vincent Tabak, 32, was subsequently charged with murder and is currently being held on remand.

Ms Soubry, a former presenter and reporter with ITV Central News, said: "In the past the press did not publish the name and address of someone when they were arrested. They waited until that person was charged.

"What's happened over the last few years is that's all changed. The press now not only publish the name or address of somebody when they have been arrested, they give more detail.

"As we have seen recently in events down in Bristol, it has now got to the stage where many of us believe this is something that has got to stop.

"There is a great wrong being done and it's time it is righted."

She added: "This is not an attack on the media but it is effectively a serious criticism of the antics that have prevailed for too long amongst certain sections of the media."

Ms Soubry did not mention Mr Jeffries by name but said: "I don't think there's anybody who is not aware of the publicity, the media coverage, that was given to the first man who was arrested following the murder of Joanna Yeates.

"I think it's also right and fair to say that everybody with any real sense of decency and sensibility has accepted that the coverage that was given of that particular individual was frankly, if not outrageous as I believe it was, was certainly unacceptable and plain wrong.

"It's as if we'd forgotten that one is innocent in this land until you are proven guilty.

"Unfortunately it is not the first time this has happened but I do believe it is perhaps the most extreme case that we have seen."

She added: "What we saw in Bristol was effectively a feeding frenzy and we saw a vilification."

Under Ms Soubry's Anonymity (Arrested Persons) Bill, which was having a second reading debate in the Commons today, anyone publishing the name of an arrested person could face up to six months in prison.

Ms Soubry continued: "The old solid principles that certainly I was taught when I trained as a journalist have been eroded in this endless search for higher ratings and greater circulation.

"I don't think 24-hour rolling news has assisted us in making our press one of the finest in the world."

She said: "With respect to those that I used to work with and the profession that I'm proud to have once been a member of, I'm afraid we have gone way beyond self-regulation.

"While we could say 'Let's just wait for common sense to prevail, for the convention to be returned to', my fear is that other people will suffer in the meantime in the way that that man in Bristol has suffered.

"That is why I believe it is beholden on this place to look at how we can improve now the law to make sure that this mischief is cured once and for all."

Ms Soubry said her Bill would allow prosecutors, a suspect or the press to apply to a crown court judge to lift the restrictions if it was deemed to be in the public interest or the interests of justice.

She said the "ultimate responsibility" lay with readers, viewers and listeners who bought newspapers and watched and listened to news bulletins.

Ms Soubry added: "If we all gathered up and said, 'enough is enough, I'm not going to buy this newspaper, watch this television news programme or listen to this radio station', we might make the sort of progress we all want to see."

Conservative Philip Davies (Shipley) said: "Newspapers and media being able to publish (names of) people arrested is a great control on potential abuse by the police, because if police can go around arresting people and the media aren't allowed to report it, that could lead to the police arresting more people than necessary and nobody would never find out about it."

Liberal Democrat Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington) said: "The press do leave people with a very clear indication or the implication that people who have been arrested are guilty of offences which subsequently proved not to be the case.

"But the thought is lodged in people's minds that they are guilty of a crime."

Mr Brake said he wanted to see the Bill make further progress but added that, "if its fate had already been sealed by a shadowy cabal of conspirators behind closed doors", he hoped Attorney General Dominic Grieve would consider the "legitimate concerns" it raised.

Conservative Robert Buckland (South Swindon) said the naming of suspects had become a problem because of the development of the internet, especially social networking websites such as Facebook and Twitter, which carried speculation about criminal cases.

He said it was necessary to find "a consensus" with modern media about when to intervene to prevent false information spreading.

Mr Buckland, a former barrister, described the stage between arrest and charge as a "grey area", telling MPs that the police would usually not name a suspect who had been arrested but would do so under some circumstances.

He added: "I am of the view now that internet media and print media really are indistinguishable. The only difference, frankly, between print media and the internet is that today's print is tomorrow's firelighters.

"The problem with the internet is that it is not just for Christmas, it's for life.

"I can give you a number of examples of constituents of mine who, years after being exonerated and cleared of very serious allegations, still have to live with the fact that, when a Google search is made against their name, a newspaper report about that false allegation comes up. It literally haunts people who are in that unfortunate situation."

But Mr Davies (Shipley) said that, by printing the name of a suspect under arrest, the media can stop false rumours as the facts are known to everyone.

He said the Bill was problematic because the restrictions it introduced applied both to internet sites, often based abroad, as well as the "responsible media" such as newspapers.

Conservative David Nuttall (Bury N) said social networking websites made controlling information flows more difficult.

He said: "If a neighbour who sees their next-door neighbour taken away in the early hours of the morning by the police Twitters that, is that covered by the Act?

"How far does publication have to go before an offence is committed? Is one tweet 'publication'?

"Or is it only published when the tweet becomes picked up by mainstream media? It's a minefield."

He added: "Within minutes, any article published on an individual's private website can spread to millions around the globe.

"If it's the case that one tweet doesn't constitute publication, it does raise the query how many tweets will constitute publication?"

Mr Nuttall said ordinary individuals using Twitter would "have no knowledge of any media code of conduct".

"They will not be concerned with what is legal.

"As far as they're concerned, they're simply passing on an interesting titbit of information that's come their way.

"It's the modern-day equivalent of having a good gossip over the garden fence."

He went on: "Once a rumour has started to circulate, it's very difficult to stop. The damage is already done.

"An allegation may be made that may damage a person's reputation for the rest of their lives."

But he said it was "virtually impossible" to pass a law banning "the spreading of a rumour" because of the "prevalence of the internet and almost universal use of mobile electronic devices".

He branded such legislation "unworkable".

Ms Soubry said there would be "no difficulty with somebody tweeting a name", but there was "a profound difference" if it was published by mainstream media.

Shadow justice minister Robert Flello branded coverage of Mr Jefferies' arrest "shameful".

Mr Flello (Stoke-on-Trent South) said: "The shameful way this man was portrayed in the press - vilified and described as everything from 'weird-looking' to 'strange', subject to questions about his sexuality, his teaching practices, his hairstyle - should be of great embarrassment and shame to our media outlets."

Mr Flello said that, although the Bill was well-intentioned, it did not address the problem posed by comment and speculation on the internet.

He said that, in the case of Mr Jefferies, the Attorney General only offered a "gentle" reminder that reporting should not fall foul of the Contempt of Court Act 1981.

Mr Grieve's warning was "insufficient", he said, adding that the media "could not be relied upon to police themselves", he told MPs.

It was a "sad fact" that the case of Mr Jefferies sold newspapers and kept viewers tuned in to 24-hour television and so it was "hardly surprising" that news outlets tried to uncover the most "outrageous and startling" rumours, Mr Flello added.

"Simple reporting of a name ensures that speculation is avoided and protects other individuals," the MP said.

"The problem has arisen from the fact that the simple reporting of a name has grown and mutated in to in-depth investigations about an individual's past, their job, their hobbies, their actions in a ridiculous way, an appalling way."

He added: "While on face value it might appear it is somewhat simple to change the law, there are in fact a multitude of issues that complicate the matter and turn it in to a very difficult question that affects a huge number of areas.

"We must balance the view that the most important thing is for justice to be seen to be done with a view that everything possible is done to ensure that justice is able to be done."

Mr Davies, a member of the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee, warned that the proposed restriction could have a "chilling effect" on local newspapers.

He said: "They may not be falling foul of the Bill as proposed ... but their fear of falling foul of that particular Bill may well have a chilling effect that stops genuine informative reporting from taking place and forces local communities to act to get their information from other places.

"I think that would be incredibly sad if we were here inadvertently putting yet another nail into the coffin of local newspapers."

Junior justice minister Crispin Blunt questioned whether "more proportionate approaches" should be found, rather than passing new laws.

He said the Government would not support Ms Soubry's proposals, but would re-examine the 1981 Contempt of Court Act.

He said: "We intend to consider whether the contempt laws contain gaps which may impede justice.

"The reason contempt laws and pre-charge reporting merit further consideration is precisely the complexity of regulation in this area and the careful interests that need balancing."

He said the issue needed "clarity not confusion".

Tory Mr Blunt (Reigate) added: "We need to avoid unfounded slurs and speculation damaging the lives of innocent people.

"Punishment before and without trial are quite wrong.

"Equally, voices in the media have raised the prospect of a world of secret arrests and anonymised justice. That's not where we would like to end up either."

He went on: "We need to be wary of assuming individual cases, however hard or egregious they may seem, constitute evidence of a widespread or pressing social problem sufficient to justify interfering with long-standing freedoms.

"This country has a long and proud tradition of media independence, one important part of which is self-regulation.

"We should not interfere with this lightly."

Ms Soubry withdrew her Bill following Mr Blunt's pledge to look again at contempt laws.