With flagrant disregard for the sentiments of the Home Secretary – as set out in a column in a tabloid newspaper last week – the Association of Chief Police Officers is recommending that forces no longer reveal the identities of those they have arrested. Where once it was a matter of discretion whether names were confirmed, secrecy should now be the norm, Acpo says.
There are difficulties in identifying suspects. The taint sticks even if charges are never brought, proponents of anonymity argue, citing the swathe of ageing TV personalities paraded across front pages thanks to Operation Yewtree. The alternative is so much worse, however. Not only because naming names may embolden other victims to come forward, as the Stuart Hall case amply illustrated. There is also a broader principle at stake here, the magnitude of which can hardly be overstated.
Against the backdrop of the Leveson Inquiry and its chill on relations between police and media, the question of identification too often becomes one of press freedom (or lack thereof). But such concerns are only a side issue. Of far greater importance are the implications for the openness of the criminal justice system.
There can be no compromise. Transparency is not only the guarantor of justice, it is – no less crucially – the guarantor of public trust. At best, secrecy breeds suspicion; at worst, corruption. Only the most exceptional circumstances, therefore, can justify the activities of police or courts being hidden from view.
Nor do the experiences of Chris Jefferies tip the balance. The innocent Bristol landlord certainly suffered at the hands of the press after his arrest for the murder of Joanna Yeates. But he was already protected in law, as the damages paid out by eight newspapers attest.
The question now is whether Theresa May is willing to fight. We can only hope she is. Law enforcement must take place in daylight. And the police must not be allowed to set their own rules. If the price is the privacy of an unfortunate few – so be it. It is a price worth paying.