Wednesday 12 August 2015

Do privacy laws prevent police forces from naming suspects?

I was asked this question at 6.15 am today. And, if I knew the answer, was I available for a BBC radio interview immediately after the 7.00 am news?

No and Yes were my answers – so I subsequently had a chat with BBC Radio’s Adrian Goldberg.

The question arose because the Birmingham Mail had asked West Midlands Police to disclose the names and images of ten suspects it had been hunting for at least a decade for crimes including rape and murder.

Initially, the force had refused to name any of the suspects, pointing to the relevant exemptions in the Freedom of Information Act. The Mail reported that the force had explained that naming them would be an unfair breach of their privacy.

This decision was criticized by local MP Khalid Mahmood as being “utterly bizzare.”

But lets get real, here.

The media has no automatic right to be informed by the police of the name of a person who is under investigation or who has been charged with a criminal offence.

While not naming nine of the ten suspects, the police did provide background information on them, and they indicated that there were operational reasons for withholding their identities.

So I’m not joining the rush to condemn the police for their behaviour. There are often extremely good reasons why suspects should not be named – particularly when there is no serious public interest at stake.

The National Police Chief’s Council (formerly known as ACPO, the Association of Chief Police Officers) currently considers that:

  • Those who have been charged should be named.
  • For those who have been arrested, there is a presumption that they should not be named;

But, that presumption can be displaced where (and only where): 

  • Releasing the name promotes the prevention or detection of crime; and/or
  • There is a serious public interest in releasing the name.
Suspects should not routinely be named. And media organisations must be careful not to identify suspects at this stage, as they would be able to sue the organisation for libel if the police investigation does not lead to a criminal prosecution.

Many suspects are never arrested or charged – for a variety of reasons including lack of evidence of their guilt or positive evidence of their innocence. Remember the witch-hunt against Christopher Jeffries, the retired Bristol teacher arrested on suspicion of the murder of his tenant Joanne Yates in 2010. His life was turned upside down following the news of his arrest, even though he was later publicly exonerated. He was able to recover substantial damages from the media organisations that had unfairly named him, but no amount of money can properly account for the impact to his reputation.

As Lord Leveson recommended in his 2012 report on the culture, practices and ethics of the press:

“…Police forces must weigh very carefully the public interest considerations of taking the media on police operations against the rights of the individuals who are the subject of such an operation… I think that it should be made abundantly clear 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 or the public.”

I won’t be encouraging vigilantes to join this particular witch-hunt.

Sources:  (Volume 2, p.984, paragraph 3.3)