The Government’s plans to give anonymity to teachers accused of committing criminal offences against children in their care unless and until they are charged with a criminal offence have moved to the House of Lords.
But media organisations should be opposing the proposals, and should raise them with Peers and MPs, according to Society Editors executive director Bob Satchwell.
The proposals, contained in Clause 13 of the Education Bill, which should receive its second reading in the House of Lords on June 14, would make it a criminal offence to publish or broadcast anything which could identify a teacher who is alleged to have committed an offence against a pupil at his or her school until he or she is charged with an offence.
A court would have the power to lift the anonymity if it believed that it was in the interests of justice to do so.
Satchwell said in a Society of Editors’ briefing that the Society and the Newspaper Society had discussed the proposals with education minister Nick Gibb.
The proposal, Satchwell said, meant that even if a teacher was sacked or otherwise disciplined for assaulting a pupil, but not prosecuted, the allegations of assault or other criminal misconduct could never be reported as the reason for the disciplinary action.
It also could not be publicised if a teacher was sacked for other reasons.
The briefing said: “If no charges are ever brought, an indefinite reporting ban results. It would then be a crime ever to identify the teacher and allegations made against them – even if raised in the course of other legal proceedings, such as employment tribunals, or civil court cases, or other criminal cases, or inquests or public inquiries or in official reports and other documents.
“It would also be a crime to report that a teacher had been arrested for an offence in respect of the allegation.”
The Bill also contained no provisions for a public interest defence.
The briefing said the Bill was changed in the Commons to allow the reporting restrictions to lapse once the Secretary of State or the General Teaching Council of Wales had published information about a teacher in a disciplinary case referred to them for investigation and decision – a change which came after it was pointed out that Education Secretary Michael Gove would have been automatically liable to prosecution for publicising a list of teachers who were banned from teaching for misconduct.
The briefing said that while Mr Gibb had said that false accusations by pupils destroyed teachers’ lives and put them in fear of going into the classroom, neither he nor his officials were able to provide any evidence that media reporting encouraged pupils to make false claims so that reporting bans were actually needed.
“We pointed out that teachers and unions had also suggested that the real problems stemmed from the ways that the allegations were handled, which the Government was now addressing by other means,” Mr Satchwell wrote.
The media side had also pointed out that teachers accused of assaults might, for a variety of reasons, never be charged, that the proposals would be a serious interference with the principle of open justice and freedom of expression, and that they flew in the face of campaigns which had for some time suggested that children should always be believed in the first instance.
“We suggested that the internet and social networking would make the plan impractical and encourage rumour and speculation. Controlling traditional media in this way would simply stack up trouble for the government and it certainly would not be in the public interest,” Satchwell wrote.