UK lawmaker Anna Soubry withdrew her proposed bill to ban the media from publishing the names of suspects after being told the government wouldn’t back her bill, the Press Gazette reported. However, the Attorney General will “conduct an informal review of the 1981 Contempt of Court Act.”
Soubry’s proposed bill would have imposed a six-month prison sentence on any publisher of the names of suspects. Under her proposed law – titled the Anonymity (Arrested Persons) Bill — the press couldn’t publish suspects’ names or addresses until suspects “are charged, or unless a judge grants permission.”
Soubry is a conservative member of Parliament. The Sunday Times reported in late January that there was “support among” other members of Parliament for Soubry’s law,” according to the Guardian. (The Sunday Times’ website is behind a paywall, but the Guardian reported on the Sunday Times’ article.)
However, contrasting with Soubry’s point of view, the Society of Editors’ director, Bob Satchwell, commented: “The public are entitled to know when someone is arrested…Not naming people who are arrested only leads to speculation and rumour in place of absolute fact.”
“If anyone oversteps the mark there are laws of libel and contempt that are already quite capable of dealing with these issues.”
The Guardian’s Roy Greenslade responded to Satchwell’s comments critically, saying: “With respect, Bob, the current wording of the contempt law is inadequate to prevent feeding frenzies. As for libel, that’s all very well, but it’s impossible for people of modest means to pursue a legal action. Unless, of course, they benefit from a conditional fee (aka no-win, no-fee) arrangement.”
Although the government reportedly wouldn’t have backed Soubry’s bill, government officials did comment on the issue of speculating on suspects. Junior justice minister Crispin Blunt called for “clarity not confusion” in reporting on suspects, the Press Gazette reported. Blunt further stated “We need to avoid unfounded slurs and speculation damaging the lives of innocent people. Punishment before and without trial are quite wrong.”
Also, shadow justice minister Robert Flello reportedly commented:
“Simple reporting of a name ensures that speculation is avoided and protects other individuals.
“The problem has arisen from the fact that the simple reporting of a name has grown and mutated in to in-depth investigations about an individuals past, their job, their hobbies, their actions in a ridiculous way, an appalling way.
“While on face value it might appear it is somewhat simple to change the law, there are in fact a multitude of issues that complicate the matter and turn it in to a very difficult question that affects a huge number of areas.
The Independent reported that Soubry’s proposed bill was “rather odd because ministers already have the power to curb prejudiced reporting” via the 1981 Contempt of Court Act. That act calls against the publication of anything “tending to interfere with the course of justice in particular legal proceedings”.
As an example of “abuses” by the press, EditorsWebLog cited the case of Richard Jewell, who was seemingly convicted by the press as a suspect for the bombing at the 1997 Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia. (See here StinkyJournalism columnist Robert Buckman’s column about the media convicting members of the public.)
StinkyJournalism is writing to Soubry for comment and will update with any response.