When the news broke that one of the Deputy Speakers had been arrested in connection with alleged rapes, my initial thought was: “For his sake I do hope he is guilty since there must be nothing worse than being innocent and unable to clear your name.” Instinctively I felt that no names should be divulged until the courts have decided that someone is innocent or guilty. Was this instinct right?
I exchanged a few Tweets with one of our new UKIP Councillors, Lee Barney, and he suggested that there should be no disclosure of names until someone is charged – as opposed to when they are arrested.
However, the always thought-provoking Camilla Cavendish writing in the Sunday Times made me ponder afresh. Here is a part of what she wrote.
“In trying to work out where I think the balance between freedom and privacy should lie, I spoke last week to Mark Lewis, the lawyer who represented the Dowler family in the phone-hacking scandal. To my surprise he is emphatically in favour of suspects being named in the media.
He pointed out that Levi Bellfield, who killed Milly Dowler, had a history of similar attacks that greater publicity might have helped to prevent. He also pointed out the dangers of giving out incomplete information about suspects, in the age of social media. One of his clients was recently accused on Twitter of being a sexual predator because he was the same age, and lived in the same area, as a man who had been arrested but not named. In this example, secrecy undermined the innocent.
For all these reasons, I creep slowly back to the principle that, while open justice is not flawless, it is generally preferable to the alternative. Secrecy lets all manner of things be covered up. And this is particularly true in relation to public bodies.” (Cammilla Cavendish, Sunday Times, 5 May 2013)
Probably the most persuasive of these is the middle paragraph. How would you feel if you were accused of an offence simply because you lived in the same town as an arrested person and were of the same age?
Now I am in a muddle: which of these options is right? Is there another way?
Is there room for a control by someone outside the police in such cases? We have such a system in place when it comes to searching private premises: could this not be extended quite simply to meet this situation?
The default position would be that the police do not divulge the name of an arrested person. If they have a reason for so doing, they would be required to obtain a warrant from a JP in exactly the same way as they need to apply for a search warrant.
This would not be perfect (people will still makes guesses and an investigative journalist might discover and reveal the name) but it would be a simple step in the right direction.
I have invited Councillor Lee Barney to send me his views as a guest blogger and I understand his comments will be with me some time this week.