Parliament might be asked to ban the media from identifying people arrested by police in criminal investigations until after they have been charged, the Attorney General warned yesterday.
The pressure for a change in the law could grow if there was an increase in what he called “frenzied” pre-charge publicity – but he would act only if it was necessary to do so, said Dominic Grieve.
Grieve avoided referring to specific cases but said the law required that newspapers should avoid publishing material which could prejudice trials, but that in some cases they had acted “in a way that could be quite dangerous”.
Newspapers were behaving in a way that caused him anxiety because of competition from bloggers and the internet, he said, adding that a degree of self-restraint which national newspapers had once shown seemed almost to have vanished.
Instead, there was “frenzied interest” in high-profile arrests until someone was charged or released, when the publicity abruptly stopped.
Grieve issued a warning to the media about such publicity in January, shortly after police arrested former teacher Chris Jefferies during the investigation of the murder of his tenant, landscape architect Joanna Yeates.
Jefferies was later released without charge and Police have since charged a Dutch man with the murder.
Backbench Tory MP Anna Soubry recently withdrew a Private Member’s Bill intended to give suspects in criminal proceedings anonymity between the time their arrest and a charge being brought after the Government said it would re-examine the law on contempt of court.
Grieve told the BBC Radio 4 Law in Action programme yesterday he would consider whether a change in law was needed, but added that he was reluctant to restrict the right of news organisations unless it was “absolutely necessary”.
The Attorney General’s warning came as Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke told journalists at a briefing on the draft Defamation Bill today that he also had concerns about pre-charge reporting.
“I think the practice today is far removed from that which would have been tolerated by courts a few years ago,” he said.
“Cases get ever more startling in the details that start being given to the public about the identity and other circumstances of people who have been arrested by the police in connection with an offence but haven’t actually been charged with anything.
“There are two problems.
“One is sometimes the person is released without any charge ever being brought against him and it turns out that some totally innocent member of the public has been subjected to rather fierce scrutiny.
“Sometimes it’s so much scrutiny that sooner or later their lawyers start arguing they won’t get a fair trial.”
He added: “We would prefer not to legislate, but practice is changing and I think there is some concern.
“The press didn’t used to do this kind of thing. No editor would ever have dreamt of reporting these cases 10 years ago in the way they’re reporting (them) now.
“We have no plans to legislate. We rely mainly on the responsible behaviour of the press.”