Pre-charge anonymity – the case for upholding its importance

“It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you’ll do things differently.”  

So said the ‘Oracle of Omaha’, Warren Buffet.  It’s a sentiment that would be shared by many who find themselves, unfairly, on the wrong end of a high-profile police investigation.

So who might have done things differently – Sir Cliff Richard, or the police and the BBC – when helicopters circled the showman’s house and the BBC live streamed footage from the air as dozens of Met officers began their raid following an allegation of historic sexual abuse, when no subsequent charges were made?

It is the impact on reputation that has caused the new Home Secretary, Suella Braverman, to propose banning the naming by media of an individual arrested and investigated, but ultimately not charged, of an offence. Braverman noted the very grave damage inflicted upon individuals in such circumstances.  Pre-charge anonymity is back on the agenda.

In response, The Times’ former Legal Editor, Frances Gibb, penned a spirited article last Sunday determining that regardless of the intrusion and reputational effect, the tenet of open justice must prevail.  She wrote that pre-charge publicity can be crucial in sex crimes and that a wall of silence around police activity would be a worrying shift towards secret justice.

Having counselled individuals experiencing the humiliation of a police raid only for no further action to be taken, I humbly beg to differ.

Many perpetrators of sexual violence, it is claimed, may not have been brought to justice had an initial arrest of a suspect not been publicised, thereby encouraging others to come forward with their experiences in the hope –  and reasonable expectation – that numbers would strengthen a prosecution and result in a conviction. But does that not lead to lazy policing, allowing for vexatious claims against unpopular figures to influence charging decisions? Just look at the Carl Beech case in which the high-profile accused were portrayed as guilty perpetrators by police and press alike, all on the say-so of a fantasist.  If the police and CPS cannot mount a case against an individual accused of one crime, is it right that others should be encouraged to come forward and add to suspicions of the defendant if the new accusers were not sufficiently motivated to bring their own claims?

I was recently gripped by the moving investigation by Winifred Robinson, formerly at BBC Radio 4, into the desperate case of young Rikki Neave, killed aged six almost 30 years ago, in a 10-part BBC podcast series called ‘The Boy in the Woods’. You only have to listen to neighbours on the estate’s views of Rikki’s mother, Ruth, to understand why the police aimed their whole investigation towards proving her guilt in the murder of her son.  But they were wrong and it took 28 years to convict the real killer. During this time, Ruth falsely gained a reputation as a child killer that even her acquittal could not repair. Protecting reputations is not just a matter for the privileged – the impact on the most vulnerable in society can be equally, if not more, pervasive.  

And the reputational impact goes way beyond just the investigated individual – it’s their spouses, children, relatives and friends who arguably suffer as much damage – wholly unnecessarily so if the investigation never proceeds to charge.   Yes, there’s recourse to privacy laws – but you have to be well-funded and the breach egregious and quantifiable to have a chance at standing up a claim against the police or media in such circumstances. Very few in society would be in a position to do so.

If we have faith in our forces to properly investigate a crime, we should have no qualms in supporting Braverman’s resurrection of pre-charge privacy plans.  The media has huge power to influence opinion and thereby affect reputations, but this power must be used fairly for it to retain public support. The media may find that gross breaches of privacy have not only a financial cost, but a reputational one too.

By Melanie Riley

18th October 2022

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