Pre-charge anonymity bill dropped

A Conservative MP has withdrawn a bill intended to give anonymity to people arrested on suspicion of criminal offences after the Government said it would re-examine the law on contempt of court.

Anna Soubry, a former TV journalist and barrister turned Broxtowe MP, demanded anonymity restriction following what the “outrageous” reporting of the Jo Yeates murder case in Bristol.

However, she withdrew her Anonymity (Arrested Persons) Bill on Friday after junior justice minister Crispin Blunt told the Commons the Attorney General would look at the operation of the Contempt of Court Act.

Soubry’s bill would have made it an offence punishable by up to six months in jail to publish the name of someone who had been arrested before they were actually charged with an offence, except in certain exceptional circumstances.

The bill did contain provisions for suspects, prosecutors and the media to apply to a Crown Court judge for the individual to be named if it was in the interests of justice or the public interest.

Soubry told MPs the media had failed to regulate itself and it was time for legislators to act to prevent a “great wrong being done”

She had also said coverage of the arrest of Yeates’s landlord, Chris Jefferies, was “unacceptable and plain wrong” and led to his “vilification”.

Jefferies, 66, was arrested on suspicion of murder before being released on bail.

Yeates’s next-door neighbour, Vincent Tabak, 32, was subsequently charged with her murder and is currently being held on remand.

Soubry did not mention Jefferies by name but said: “I don’t think there’s anybody who is not aware of the publicity, the media coverage, that was given to the first man who was arrested following the murder of Joanna Yeates.

“I think it’s also right and fair to say that everybody with any real sense of decency and sensibility has accepted that the coverage that was given of that particular individual was, frankly, if not outrageous as I believe it was, was certainly unacceptable and plain wrong.

“It’s as if we’d forgotten that one is innocent in this land until you are proven guilty.”

She added: “What we saw in Bristol was effectively a feeding frenzy and we saw a vilification.”

Blunt said the Government would not support Soubry’s proposals, but the Attorney General would conduct an informal review of the 1981 Contempt of Court Act.

“We intend to consider whether the contempt laws contain gaps which may impede justice,” he said.

“The reason contempt laws and pre-charge reporting merit further consideration is precisely the complexity of regulation in this area and the careful interests that need balancing.”

The issue needed “clarity not confusion”, said Blunt, adding: “We need to avoid unfounded slurs and speculation damaging the lives of innocent people. Punishment before and without trial are quite wrong.”

But self-regulation was part of “a long and proud tradition of media independence” and “we should not interfere with this lightly”, he added.

Shadow justice minister Flello said although the Bill was well-intentioned, it did not address the problem posed by comment and speculation on the internet.

In the case of Jefferies, the Attorney General only offered a “gentle” reminder that reporting should not fall foul of the Contempt of Court Act 1981, he said, adding that this was “insufficient” and that the media “could not be relied upon to police themselves”.

It was a “sad fact” that the case of Jefferies sold newspapers and kept viewers tuned in to 24-hour television and so it was hardly surprising that news outlets tried to uncover the most “outrageous and startling” rumours, Flello added.

“Simple reporting of a name ensures that speculation is avoided and protects other individuals,” he said.

“The problem has arisen from the fact that the simple reporting of a name has grown and mutated in to in-depth investigations about an individual’s past, their job, their hobbies, their actions in a ridiculous way, an appalling way.

“While on face value it might appear it is somewhat simple to change the law, there are in fact a multitude of issues that complicate the matter and turn it in to a very difficult question that affects a huge number of areas.

“We must balance the view that the most important thing is for justice to be seen to be done with a view that everything possible is done to ensure that justice is able to be done.”

Tory Philip Davies, a member of the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee, warned that the proposed restriction could have a “chilling effect” on local newspapers.

“They may not be falling foul of the Bill as proposed … but their fear of falling foul of that particular Bill may well have a chilling effect that stops genuine informative reporting from taking place and forces local communities to act to get their information from other places,” he said.

“I think that would be incredibly sad if we were here inadvertently putting yet another nail into the coffin of local newspapers.”

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