Should we ban the naming of police suspects?

I’m collecting moral dilemmas at the moment.

Yesterday, I emailed a number of friendly editors to ask them to keep me updated on the ethical questions that disturb their sleep in the digital age.

At a time when the NCTJ is stressing the crucial importance of ethics, with a specific test on the cards, I am preparing to teach a new module focussed on the ethical dimensions of journalism.

I have a feeling that the fault lines between what might once have been regarded as commercial and editorial may provide a rich seam of material.

But the balance between the competing rights of freedom of expression and privacy will also yield plenty of talking points.

And for the last few days, the case of singer Sir Cliff Richard has raised one of the biggest dilemmas of them all.

I thought it was grimly fascinating that the Crown Prosecution Service revealed it would not be recommending charges against Sir Cliff on the very day that a man arrested – but at that stage not yet charged – over the killing of MP Jo Cox was being widely identified.

Sir Cliff is rightly furious at his treatment at the hands of South Yorkshire Police and the BBC, which broadcast footage of a raid on his home on live TV.

The case has echoes of the nightmare faced by DJ Paul Gambaccini, who was effectively hung out to dry for 18 months by both the police and the BBC, this time in the role of his employer.

But Sir Cliff was not even arrested.

National policing guidelines and the Leveson Report have been clear that only in extremely exceptional circumstances should the names of people who have been arrested but not yet charged be released.

But there is no legislation to underpin this, other than the defamation risk that accompanies stories about arrested people who never end up in court.

There is strong support from some libel lawyers for the idea – floated by Sir Cliff again in the last few days – of a legal ban on the identification of suspects who have not yet been charged.

And a 2014 civil law case gave some hope to another of Sir Cliff’s arguments – that revealing details of a police investigation at such an early stage could be seen as a breach of his privacy.

And yet, and yet.

While Sir Cliff is an innocent victim in this awful saga, other high profile celebrities have been less so.

There is no doubt that the pre-charge naming of entertainer Stuart Hall was instrumental in bringing forward key witnesses for the police to use in the eventual successful prosecution.

The simple knowledge that other people may have suffered in their own silences can be a powerful motivator in persuading sex abuse victims to finally speak up.

Which is why the NSPCC believes there should always be a public interest get-out clause allowing police to name suspects who have yet to be charged.

And there is also that freedom of speech argument.

The pressure group Index on Censorship has been vocal on this subject, saying that while anonymity may be appropriate, “sweeping powers for secrecy should not be the norm.”

I have to say that, for once, I don’t know what the answer is here.

I can see the persuasive power of suspect identification.

But I can also see how incredibly difficult it will be for Sir Cliff and Paul Gambaccini to pick up their normal lives.

One thing I am sure of, though, is this.

It was insensitive beyond belief for the BBC to enter its coverage of that police raid for the Royal Television Society awards Scoop of the Year category.

I’m very glad it didn’t win.

I don’t think this was either the BBC’s or journalism’s finest hour.

But finding a way to square the circle of protecting the innocent while helping to nail the guilty would be.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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