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Media anonymity for sex offence suspects would likely result in more child abuse

Gabrielle Shaw, chief executive of the National Association for People Abused in Childhood (NAPAC), reacts to a petition backed by Sir Cliff Richard and DJ Paul Gambaccini calling for anonymity for sexual offence suspects, which has reached more than 25,000 signatures.

Much of the media reporting in the past five years has been positive and has led to improved awareness about how crimes against children happen, prompting thousands of survivors to reach out for support.

Rape and abuse are difficult crimes to prove in court. The legal process can be traumatising for survivors. Non-recent child sexual abuse cases are especially hard to prosecute, as usually only the child and the perpetrator were present when the crime took place and the passage of time makes gathering corroborating evidence difficult.

Many people who sexually abuse children are repeat offenders and media coverage can prompt other survivors to come forward which can help to secure a conviction. This is what happened with Stuart Hall, Rolf Harris (pictured) and Max Clifford and with some of the football coaches who abused children.

No-one wants an innocent person to be publicly accused and prosecuted – least of all victims and survivors of these crimes. Inevitably there will be more media interest when an alleged suspect is someone well-known or high-status in society. This makes responsible reporting even more critical.

A few cases of sensationalist or reckless media reporting have caused immense harm to innocent people wrongly accused of crimes against children. These kinds of cases also damage survivors by diverting police resources from genuine cases.

However the risk of false allegations being reported has to be balanced against the risk of serial offenders against children remaining undetected and continuing to abuse.

We know from the huge number of cases being heard at the IICSA child abuse inquiry that many perpetrators continued abusing children for decades. The ONS National Crime Survey gives an indication of just how many people in our country suffered abuse in childhood

Police routinely appeal for witnesses when a crime or alleged crime is committed and child abuse should be no exception.

The police make the decision to share information on cases with the media, and there are signs they have learned from mistakes made in Operation Midland, as assessed by Judge Henriques in his 2016 report into the probe.

It is understandable that anyone wrongly accused of crimes against children wants to campaign for change, but calling for anonymity in all cases prior to charge is not the answer. It would assist perpetrators in remaining unprosecuted and likely result in more children being abused.

Society is only just beginning to recognise the impacts of trauma in childhood and how this affects people in adulthood. It is a travesty that it has taken so long to even recognise the problem, let alone start to provide the support needed.

People who abuse children come from all walks of life. Most are family members or in a position of trust, with the perpetrator having built a relationship with the child prior to offending. The police need to be able to investigate without fear or favour.

We don’t want trial by media, but we need to recognise that good media reporting has an important role to play in making our society safer for children.

NAPAC’s media guidelines can be seen here.

Picture: Reuters/Neil Hall 

Comments

3 thoughts on “Media anonymity for sex offence suspects would likely result in more child abuse”

  1. Gabrielle Shaw and others, I am sorry to say, quite obviously does want trial by media if she thinks that naming people before charge is the correct thing to do. What she, and indeed a great many women’s groups and journalists are doing is to twist what Sir Cliff Richard and others are trying to do. No one is suggesting that people should never be named, but that there is a right time to do it. Before arrest, before charge, or, as in the case of Sir Cliff Richard, before even being questioned by the police and being informed of exactly what the nature of the allegations he faced was, is simply not the right time.

    Citing Stuart Hall as a defence of naming people before charge is ridiculous. Stuart Hall was arrested, his home was searched and he was charged on the same day. Under the proposed change in the law he would still have been named, but equally, Sir Cliff Richard, who was never arrested or charged with anything, would not have been.

    It is wrong to suggest that naming people before charge can encourage other ‘victims’, people who should in fact always be referred to as complainants until conviction of the individual they accuse, to come forward. Naming people prematurely merely encourages false accusers to come forward, creating further demand on stretched police resources when they could be spent on investigating other matters and unnecessarily prolonging investigations.

    There is simply no defence for naming people before charge unless there is a genuine public interest, which FAIR, the group proposing the change in the law has been quite clear about. They agree that there would be times when a name has to be released early, but that the decision to do so should be made by a judge, not a journalist.

    I’m afraid that some groups and journalists are seeking to turn the issue of anonymity until charge into a competition in who has suffered the most. However, the UK has a legal principle of innocent until proven guilty beyond reasonable doubt. Naming people prematurely flies in the face of this principle and leads to the assumption that there is ‘no smoke without fire’. It is simply wrong that a complainant gets lifelong anonymity, unless a judge removes it or the complainant chooses to waive it, whilst the person they accuse can be named at any point by the press or on TV or even on social media and has to live with that their life has been destroyed.

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