An investigation by freelance data-crunching specialist Duncan Campbell revealed in The Guardian and PC Pro this week that ‘thousands of cases under Operation Ore [which hunts internet-using paedophiles] have been built on the shakiest of foundations”.
In some of these mistaken prosecutions, the accused were subject to widespread publicity in the press and will have forever-tarnished reputations.
The main blame for this obviously lies with the police officers who relied on faulty computer data.
But the media had a role to play as well, and journalists need to remember at the early stages of all coverage – from initial questioning through to trial – that defendants are innocent until proved otherwise.
It is an essential tenet of open justice that when someone is arrested and charged with a crime, that becomes public knowledge.
It helps insure us against degenerating into a police state where people just disappear off the streets into cells.
But such is the stigma attached to sex crimes that in these cases, perhaps the Government should look at extending the right to anonymity for those accused until they are convicted.
It is a bizarre feature of the current legislation that entirely innocent people can be named in connection with such crimes, but a man who has admitted 20 child porn offences in open court has had his identity protected by a judge.
This is what happened in Croydon last week when Judge Warwick McKinnon maintained an order under section 11 of the Contempt of Court Act not to allow the naming of the man in case it led to his daughters, who were not involved in the case, being teased at school.
The Croydon Advertiser and Croydon Guardian are – rightly in our opinion – currently fighting to have the order overturned.