Following this week’s ruling in the Cliff Richard case, the press is crying “foul”, citing freedom of expression and the public interest.
This has been compounded by the decision to name two teenagers who have been convicted of planning a Columbine-style massacre and the application for anonymity by another teenager, convicted of encouraging someone in another country to commit an act of terrorism.
These are very different scenarios. On the one hand a well-known personality who was never arrested, let alone charged or tried, has had his life turned upside down by what was essentially a police fishing expedition. On the other, convicted criminals who are, nevertheless, teenagers who may simply grow up and build constructive futures once they have served their time.
Cliff ‘s name will be tainted for the rest of his life, as will the names of less well-known people whose lives have been ruined on the basis of no more than a malicious false accusation or a whispering campaign.
Only a couple of weeks ago, newspapers reported extensively on the arrest of a nurse for “murder” (The Times, which didn’t even know whether there have been a crime). The story quickly vanished disappeared from the headlines within a few days, but remains permanently on the record.
Some years ago, I knew someone who was arrested for a particularly nasty murder purely on the basis of police suspicion. In the pre-internet age he was able to prove his innocence and move on to lead a successful life.
There are undoubtedly cases where suspects should be named, either to protect the public or because there is a genuine public interest, but the press and the police have both demonstrated that they are not the best people to make this decision. There are also cases where the press has been wrongly silenced (Cyril Smith) and wrongly remained silent (Jimmy Saville).
Whilst there should be no rush, pace publicity hungry MPs, to enact a “Cliff’s Law”, there is a case for debate Yes, there should be freedom of the press, but there should also be freedom from lives being ruined by lazy and incompetent police and lazy, headline grabbing reporting. Naming someone in the online world is not the same as the same as a doing it in a few lines of print in a local newspaper.The balance has changed and should be redressed.