Coroner's criticism leads weekly to change policy

County Press editor Dennis said coroner's comments (reported right) gave the paper 'a bit of a nudge'

A weekly newspaper has changed its editorial policy following the inquest of a sex assault suspect who killed himself the day before being named in the press.

The Isle of Wight County Press stands by its decision to name Alastair Wilbee in a report of a preliminary hearing at which he was charged with child abuse.

But the paper has decided to drop the newspaper convention of referring to all court defendants only by their surname, following criticism from the coroner. In future, court defendants appearing in the pages of the County Press will be called "Mr" until proven guilty.

Wilbee, 47, disappeared in September, the day before a report of his first court appearance was due to appear in the County Press. The respected headteacher had been charged with the sexual assualt of a teenage boy. Two months later his body was found hanging from a tree.

His wife Gail said she believed her husband took his own life because of the harm to his reputation he expected to be caused by being named in the press.

She said at the time: "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."

Speaking at Wilbee's inquest last week, coroner John Matthews said: "It is unfair that the law should protect alleged victims of sexual abuse but not the alleged perpetrators. The stigma remains with a person forever, whether there is an acquittal or the charges are withdrawn."

However, the Home Office put out a statement afterwards saying that the principle of openness is "a vital ingredient in maintaining public confidence and encouraging witnesses to come forward".

The coroner also criticised the practice most newspapers adopt of referring to defendants at all their court appearances by surname only.

County Press editor Brian Dennis said: "The criminal justice system is based on the principles of open justice. It is important that as few people as possible who are charged remain anonymous.

"Eventually you could have people disappearing off the streets and nobody would know where they have gone." But he added: "The coroner also remarked that until a person is found guilty they deserve the courtesy of their title. This is something we have been looking at for some time and his comments gave us a bit of a nudge. People have said to me that it's pejorative to refer to somebody by their surname while they are still presumed innocent.

"When I first used to cover court I remember magistrates used to say, 'Do this Smith'. Nowadays they do refer to people as Mr and Mrs.

"The only reason we referred to people by their surname is because we've always done it that way."

He said the paper would be changing its policy to refer to defendants by surname only after they have been convicted.

By Dominic Ponsford

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