Leading article: The naming game should be brought to an end

Share
Related Topics

Strange. Lewd. Creepy. Peeping Tom. Obsessed by death. These are just some of the words used by the populist press to describe Chris Jefferies. Mr Jefferies was arrested late last year in connection with the murder of his tenant, Joanna Yeates, but released without charge. A different individual has now been charged with Ms Yeates's murder.

Elements of the press have been sailing close to the wind for several years. But with their character assassination of Mr Jefferies they have tipped over into the ocean of irresponsibility. And now the backlash is coming.

Anna Soubry, the Conservative MP for Broxtowe, will this week bring forward a private member's Bill in Parliament which would make it illegal for a newspaper or broadcaster to name someone arrested or questioned by police until they are charged with a crime. Ms Soubry claims she has received encouragement from the Justice Secretary, Kenneth Clarke, and the Attorney General, Dominic Grieve.

This is rather odd because ministers already have the power to curb prejudiced reporting. The 1981 Contempt of Court Act makes it an offence to publish information "tending to interfere with the course of justice in particular legal proceedings". The prejudice displayed against Mr Jefferies in the tabloid press would certainly fall into that category. What has been lacking has been any appetite from ministers to use the powers at their discretion. It is puzzling why Mr Clarke and Mr Grieve prefer to have a backbencher do their job for them.

In any case, the vested interests are beginning to stir. Bob Satchwell, of the Society of Editors, has suggested that "naming an arrested person means that other information comes out that is in the interest of the arrested". Exactly how being labelled "creepy" is in the interests of someone like Mr Jefferies is a mystery. Mr Satchwell also asserts that "there is a danger of not reporting about a crime that people are entitled to know about". But what interests the public is not necessarily the same as the public interest.

Some have warned that restrictions could have the unintended consequence of making it more difficult for the public to hold the police to account. It is argued that Ms Soubry's law would make it impossible to report who the police have taken into custody and that naming suspects in the media constitutes a form of protection for those arrested. It is further claimed that naming suspects can have the effect of encouraging witnesses to come forward, thus helping a case to proceed.

Such defences might have been respectable if newspapers had behaved with more restraint in recent years but, in the present context of a populist press that smears reputations before the facts are known, it sounds like hollow special pleading.

A practical objection to tighter reporting restrictions is the internet. While websites are technically liable for contempt, in reality cyberspace is impossible to police. Does it make sense for print to be heavily policed, when the public can increasingly get information online? As Ofcom's latest report into News Corporation's bid to expand its ownership of BSkyB makes clear, online news tends to extend the reach of established providers, rather than new players. It is true that tighter laws on print would not be a silver bullet to take out character assassinations, but they would represent progress nonetheless.

The time has come to tighten the screw on prejudicial reporting in newspapers – whether by applying the existing law more assiduously or introducing a new offence. Anyone who feels that the status quo is acceptable should take a closer look at the scandalous treatment of the unfortunate Mr Jefferies.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Data Analyst

£30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A highly reputable software house is looking ...

Application Support Analyst / Junior SQL Server DBA

£40000 - £45000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established professional services...

Commercial Litigation

Highly Attractive Salary: Austen Lloyd: CITY - SENIOR COMMERCIAL LITIGATION SO...

BI Developer - Sheffield - £35,000 ~ £40,000 DOE

£35000 - £40000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: My client is...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Letter from the Assistant Editor: Domestic violence is no petty matter

Siobhan Norton
 

There’s nothing wrong with GM

Steve Connor
A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

A new Russian revolution

Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

Standing my ground

If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
The man who dared to go on holiday

The man who dared to go on holiday

New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

The Guest List 2014

Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

Jokes on Hollywood

With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

Voted for by the British public, the artworks on Art Everywhere posters may be the only place where they can be seen
Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

Blanche Marvin reveals how Tennessee Williams used her name and an off-the-cuff remark to create an iconic character
Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

Websites offering your ebooks for nothing is only the latest disrespect the modern writer is subjected to, says DJ Taylor
Edinburgh Fringe 2014: The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee

Edinburgh Fringe 2014

The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee
Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

The woman stepping down as chair of the Heritage Lottery Fund is worried