Table of contents
1. What did the home secretary say?
At the recent Conservative Party conference, Home Secretary Suella Braverman announced that she was considering proposals to give anonymity to suspects who have not been charged with a criminal offence. As the Guardian reported, this was on the basis it could prevent what she described as the “media circus” around suspects later found to be innocent.
Suspect anonymity has been debated for several years. People being “vilified” by the media has been widely reported, including Christopher Jeffries, who was arrested for the murder of Joanna Yates but later found to be innocent. More recently, Cliff Richard received a £2mn settlement from the BBC following its coverage of a police raid on his home. This followed allegations of historic sexual assault against the singer, who was never arrested or charged. His case was subsequently dropped two years later.
UK law does not currently prohibit a suspect’s identity being published before they are charged with an offence. This is regardless of the suspect’s age.
In 2012, the Leveson Inquiry recommended that, save in exceptional circumstances, identifying details of those arrested or suspected of a crime should not be released to the press or the public. This led to the publication of College of Policing guidance on media relations for police officers. The guidance states that a suspect’s name should only be released prior to being charged in exceptional circumstances. This includes: where there is a threat to life; for the prevention or detection of crime; or where it is a matter of public interest and confidence.
The debate on suspect anonymity has recently been reignited. In February 2022, a landmark UK supreme court case (Bloomberg LP v ZXC) held that, in general, a person who is under criminal investigation but who has not been charged has a reasonable expectation of privacy in respect of information relating to that investigation. This ruling has polarised opinions on suspect anonymity across the legal, media and charity sectors.
2. What has the reaction been?
Several journalist associations criticised the supreme court ruling on the basis that it placed limitations on the notion of a free press. The National Union of Journalists voiced “considerable disquiet” in the wake of the ruling. Chair of the National Union of Journalists’ Ethics Council, Chris Frost, described the ruling as a “slippery slope” and argued that the public had a right to know the details of an arrested person. The industry body the Society of Editors warned that the ruling would have “far-reaching” implications for British media. Executive Director Dawn Alford said that the ruling “fundamentally go[es] against the principle of open justice”. She argued that the bar was now so high for privacy that legitimate public interest journalism risked going unreported.
However, some in the legal sector have supported the ruling on the basis that it offers safeguards to suspects who turn out to be innocent. A blog article by barristers Leon Kazakos KC and Kenniesha Stephens from 2 Hare Court chambers argued that the ruling recognised the substantial reputational damage that could be done to a person who is reported by the press to be the subject of a criminal investigation.
In response to the home secretary’s recent announcement, charities have raised concerns about the impact that suspect anonymity could have on victims of crime. The charity Rape Crisis stated that suspect anonymity could prevent rape survivors from coming forward, denying them access to justice. The Times reported similar concerns from other charities. Farah Nazeer, the executive director of Women’s Aid, said that the fear of not being believed meant that it was already hard for survivors to come forward to report abuse. She argued that anything that could make the process of coming forward harder could risk deterring more survivors from getting justice. Additionally, the chief executive of the charity Victim’s Support, Diana Fawcett, said that revealing the identities of suspected criminals could encourage more victims to come forward.
However, there are others that support the idea of suspect anonymity. Neil Henderson, the chief executive of the victim charity Safeline, said to the Times that suspect anonymity would ensure that suspects received a fair trial. Also supporting the proposal, a blog article by the head of serious and general crime at Hickman & Rose Solicitors, Jenny Wiltshire, said that a clear statutory framework was needed to enforce suspect anonymity. She suggested this framework could be accompanied by a mechanism enabling a person to apply to a court to waive anonymity in exceptional circumstances, for example, where a victim’s life might be in danger.
3. Read more
- Nicola Laver, ‘The risk of media identification of crime suspects’, InBrief, accessed 27 October 2022
- Lauren Terrell, ‘Would anonymity for suspected criminals guarantee fair trials?’, The Justice Gap, 5 October 2022
- Sophia Sleigh, ‘Home secretary says she will “look at” pre-charge anonymity for suspects’, Huffington Post, 3 October 2022
- Brett Wilson LLP, ‘Suspect anonymity: Is it actually feasible?’, 16 May 2018
- UK Parliament, ‘Anonymity for defendants in rape cases’, accessed 27 October 2022