The apparent suicide of a teacher accused of sexual assualt on the Isle of Wight has reignited the debate over anonymity for sex-case defendants.
Alastair Wilbee disappeared two weeks ago, the day before a report of his first court appearance was due to appear in the Isle of Wight County Press. Wilbee was charged with sexual assault on a teenage boy.
His wife Gail fears her husband, who denied the charge, may have taken his own life because of the damage to his reputation caused by publicity of his case. She said: “His recent deep grief at the waste of his professional life and the loss of standing in the community that he saw as the inevitable result of the publication of his name and address in the local press last week has placed my family and I in the current traumatic and possibly tragic situation.”
Mrs Wilbee plans to raise the matter with her MP – possibly with a view to changing the law to provide anonymity until conviction for suspects in such cases.
The Sexual Offences Bill is currently going through Parliament and Conservative MPs are seeking amendments to extend anonymity to defendants. The Home Office is already considering plans to give men accused of rape the right to anonymity until they are officially charged.
Isle of Wight County Press editor Brian Dennis said: “I am concerned that my newspaper appears to be blamed for his sudden disappearance. “County Press readers trust us to tell them what is happening on the island, honestly, fairly and accurately.
In this case we carried a four-sentence, frontpage report.
“This allegation was not Mr Wilbee’s secret, a wide circle of people on the island already knew before the County Press published its report. They included his family, colleagues and friends, from whom he received comfort and support and whose opinion would matter most to Mr Wilbee.
“The island being the close-knit community it is, this news was certain to leak out and, with the inevitable network of Chinese whispers, untrue details and speculation would be added and spread.
“Then, as so often happens when things are hushed up, innocent people are dragged in and hurt and so a clean statement of facts, as published by the County Press, avoided rumour and speculation.”
Society of editors executive director Bob Satchwell said: “The naming of defendants is also a defence for them because it can make more witnesses come to light. A more general point is that anyone who is arrested, for their own protection, needs to named otherwise you go down the road of a banana republic where people just vanish.”
By Dominic Ponsford