Today MPs debated Anna Soubry MP’s Anonymity (Arrested Persons) Bill, which would have made it a criminal offence (see clause 3) for anyone to publish the name of a person arrested by the police (clause 1) until either he’s charged, or a Crown court judge has directed that it’s in the public interest to name him (clause 2). The judge could have made the direction of his or her own motion, but it’s not obvious why an individual judge would want to do so unilaterally. More realistically, a public interest application could be made by the arrestee himself, by the police or CPS, or anyone else the judge thought had a sufficient interest – which would obviously cover media organisations.
Frances Crook of the Howard League backed the proposal (hat-tip to David Allen Green, who’s also expressed support). But I’m against it. I’m glad Anna Soubry ended up withdrawing the bill when the government declined to support it.
What was wrong with the way the press covered the arrest of Joanne Yeates’s landlord was not the publication of his name, but of other intrusive, irrelevant and speculative material about him – behaviour that caused the Attorney General to warn the media it was risking contempt of court.
The wrong response to this is to retreat from public justice. That’s a worrying modern tendency, reflected earlier this year in the government’s wrong-headed attempt to give anonymity to rape defendants. Public justice is a hugely important protection for the public and for defendants, which is why the European Convention on Human Rights for example guarantees defendants a fair and public trial.
But worse, Anna Soubry’s bill went too far in limiting freedom of expression. Why on earth should responsible journalists have to pay lawyers to race to court before being free to identify someone it’s plainly in the public interest to name – for instance, an MP arrested for expenses fraud – and be gagged by law, under threat of imprisonment, until they obtain a judge’s direction? No one who supports a free press could seriously support that. The default position should, on the contrary, be openness subject to limited restrictions to protect children, rape victims and so on.
So it’s good that the justice minister Crispin Blunt said in the Commons debate that the government didn’t supporting this bill. The bad news is that it’s the tricky details he’s worried about more than the principle. He said the Attorney General will be looking again at contempt of court law – which is good. But I hope the government doesn’t come back with new proposals anything like Anna Soubry’s.
The real solution to tabloid misconduct – and a solution much friendlier to a free press – is to junk the useless Press Complaints Commission, and have proper regulation of newspapers, along the lines of Ofcom’s regulation of broadcasting.
Simon Jenkins’s recent suggestion that journalists should regulate themselves as a serious profession, like lawyers and doctors, is a good one. And I agree with Roy Greenslade’s implication that the Attorney General needs to go beyond reminders and warnings, and be much tougher about enforcing the law of contempt. It’s the only language them tabloids understand.