Dead rabbit highlights data protection flaws

Mike Gilson

 

The row between the press and police about releasing full details of crimes and car crashes has descended into farce over a dead rabbit.

The News, Portsmouth, was asked by Hampshire Police to run an appeal after a rabbit was killed by vandals on a farm in Droxford.

Police suspected that the rabbit had been killed by intruders who had released it from a hutch which was then dropped on top of the poor creature.

When a journalist from The News asked for more details he was told the owners had requested no publicity. Police could not even name the farm where the rabbit-killers had struck.

Since the introduction of the Data Protection Act, Hampshire Police and most other forces have adopted a policy of asking victims of crimes and accidents if they want their details released to the press.

The Human Rights Act, with its provisions on privacy, is also seen as being used to restrict the flow of information about crimes and accidents to the press by over zealous police officers.

Rather than run the appeal over the dead rabbit with so few details, The News spiked the story.

Editor Mike Gilson said: "We were in a ludicrous situation. The police had got themselves in such a tangle they were reduced to appealing for anyone who might have overheard someone in a pub boasting about killing the rabbit, rather than being able to ask if anyone had seen anything in the vicinity of the crime.

"The story was unusable. There is an overwhelming desire by the police not to give out any information that might vaguely involve data protection or human rights. All this has filtered down to a very minor crime about an attack on a rabbit."

Gilson believes the incident is part of a bigger problem with crimes not being publicised because the victims don’t want them to be. He compares the rabbit incident to a recent serious assault in Portsmouth.

"Can you make a distinction between someone whose rabbit has been killed and someone whose son has been attacked? Supposing the victim of the attack told police they did not want publicity? Would the police simply have said a man was assaulted ‘somewhere in Portsmouth’? "

Gilson said he was frustrated by the lack of debate with the police over the issue of releasing information on crimes and accidents.

"The police don’t attempt to engage us in a really sensible debate on where we can go on this," he said.

Police told The News that information about the attack on the rabbit had been released even though its owners requested no publicity and their anonymity had to be protected.

By Jon Slattery

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