Robert Buckland calls for reporting restrictions to be imposed as controversy over ‘secret arrests’ grows
Reporting restrictions should be imposed to prevent the routine naming of suspects by police until they have been charged, a prominent Conservative MP has urged. As the debate over so-called “secret arrests” intensifies following the naming of Rolf Harris last week, Robert Buckland, a member of parliament’s influential joint committee on human rights, has called for media organisations that name individuals without seeking permission from magistrates to face punishment.
His comments come as Acpo, the Association of Chief Police Officers, is drafting fresh guidance for police forces which is likely to advise against confirming the identity of those who have been detained.
Frances Crook, chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, has also called for the “arrest anonymity” to be enshrined in law but admits she is not in favour of jailing journalists or bloggers.
Buckland, a barrister and the MP for south Swindon, was a prominent supporter of a private member’s bill put forward by the Conservative MP Anna Soubry in June 2010 that would have criminalised the identification of anyone who had been arrested without first seeking official permission. It proposed a punishment of up to six months in prison. Soubry eventually withdrew her anonymity (arrested persons) bill when the government failed to support it.
“There is a case for conferring greater anonymity [on suspects],” says Buckland. “There should be reporting restrictions but there should also be a mechanism which would allow reporters to request that they are lifted.”
The media would have to make an application before magistrates if they wanted to make an application, Buckland proposes. Media practices have changed, he says, and in the past newspapers were more prepared to talk about an “18 year old man” being arrested rather than identifying suspects before charges are brought.
Buckland adds: “If you think about someone who might be wrongly accused … that [accusation] is going to be on Google for the rest of his life and he will never be able to get away from it.
“I don’t want to be too draconian, but there would have to be some sanction [to prevent newspapers naming those arrested without permission]. The need for some reform is pressing. I have had conversations with the attorney general [Dominic Grieve QC] about this.”
Crook also wants the law changed. “There should be a presumption that people have anonymity at the point of arrest,” she says. “And there should be a proper decision-making process if there’s a reason to reveal their identity.
“People are innocent until proven guilty. It has to have the force of law. I’m reluctant to attach a criminal sanction to it and I don’t want to see more people going to prison – journalists or anyone else. People’s lives have been blighted when they have been named and [subsequently never charged]. It’s not just high-profile cases.”
Following the coining of the phrase “secret courts” to describe the restricted evidence hearings sanctioned by the justice and security bill, the term “secret arrests” is gaining currency.
Few of those involved in the latest debate sparked by comments in Lord Justice Leveson’s report, however, are suggesting that the media should be formally banned from naming suspects arrested by the police.
Stricter enforcement by the attorney general of contempt of court powers has resulted in a series of prosecutions of newspapers and may have reduced the political pressure for fresh criminal sanctions against the media.
The speculation has arisen from continuing concerns over the impact of media reporting on cases such as that involving the retired Bristol teacher Christopher Jefferies.
Jefferies was vilified by the popular press after being erroneously arrested in December 2010 for the murder of 25-year-old Joanna Yeates, a tenant in the building he owned. His name, he claimed, was disclosed by police to newspapers.
In Leveson’s report on the culture, practices and ethics of the press, the appeal court judge suggested that guidance about releasing names needs to be strengthened.
“I think that it should be made abundantly clear,” he wrote, “that save in exceptional and clearly identified circumstances (for example, where there may be an immediate risk to the public), the names or identifying details of those who are arrested or suspected of a crime should not be released to the press nor the public.”
The Law Commission, which last November put out proposals on refining the contempt of court laws for consultation, did not agree. It called for “greater certainty and consistency” in the way that police forces released information about those arrested.
But, it proposed, suspects should generally be identifed following a media request. “We consider that such policy should establish that, generally, the names of arrestees will be released,” it said, “but that appropriate safeguards will need to be put in place to ensure that some names are withheld, for example, where it would lead to the unlawful identification of a complainant, where the arrestee is a youth or where an ongoing investigation may be hampered.”
Spurred on by the debate, Acpo decided it should clarify its current guidance which allows police forces to adopt different approaches on whether or not to identify those detained.
Andy Trotter, chief constable of British Transport Police and Acpo’s lead officer on media policy, told the Mail on Sunday earlier this month that there should be a presumption of not confirming identities: “We are suggesting that people who have been arrested should not be named and only the briefest of details should be given.” Acpo is drafting fresh guidance which will eventually have to be approved by the College of Policing and chief constables.
Two senior judges, Lord Justice Treacy and Mr Justice Tugendhat, responding on behalf of the senior judiciary to the Law Commission’s consultation, recently endorsed Trotter’s and Leveson’s preference for withholding the identification of those arrested save in exceptional circumstances.
They commented: “If there were a policy that the police should consistently publish the fact that a person has been arrested, in many cases that information would attract substantial publicity, causing irremediable damage to the person’s reputation.”
The Home Office insists it is not involved in drafting the new Acpo guidelines and declined to comment on Leveson’s proposals on the grounds that it was not a “full-blown recommendation” in his report.
The free speech organisation Index on Censorship has expressed alarm at the prospect of “secret arrests” where officers decline to confirm identities of those detained. Its chief executive, Kirsty Hughes, says: “‘De facto anonymity for people who have been arrested would reverse the principle of open justice that we have in the UK and could lead to people being arrested and taken into custody without anyone knowing about it. Anonymity may be appropriate in certain circumstances, but sweeping powers for secrecy should not be the norm.”