Tragedies must not force justice behind closed doors

On 28 August, Alastair Wilbee disappeared from his home after learning that his name would appear in the Isle of Wight County Press the following day. A head teacher of many years’ standing, he had been charged with the indecent assault of a teenage boy – charges that he emphatically denied.

His wife Gail, also a teacher, believes the imminent publication of the story had a direct impact on his disappearance.

Drawing a comparison with Dr David Kelly’s death, she felt that the “loss of standing in the community that he saw as the inevitable result of the publication of his name and address … have placed my family and I in the current traumatic and possibly tragic situation”.

She now believes he has committed suicide.

Emotive stuff. And it’s impossible not to be sympathetic to Mrs Wilbee’s grief and anger.

Yet in blaming the press, she is striking out at the wrong target.

A newspaper, particularly one that serves a tight-knit community such as the Isle of Wight, has many functions. One of the most important of them is to make sure that justice is conducted openly and honestly.

As editor Brian Dennis rightly points out, the story could not have been a secret even before he was charged. The suspension of a headmaster from his job does not pass unnoticed. In such circumstances, rumours spread, innocent names are dragged in.

Dennis would have been derelict in his duty had he not reported the charge – which he did in a four-paragraph story.

But that has not stopped campaigners seizing on the Wilbee case as evidence that media rules in indecent assault cases must change. The Home Of?ce has in mind plans that would ensure the anonymity of those accused of rape until charges have been laid – not that these would have changed anything in the Wilbee case.

Others say identities should only be released in the event of a guilty verdict. Still more want anonymity for life, regardless of the verdict. And there are counters to all of these arguments from those who note that too many rape victims are discouraged from coming forward.

Journalists need to be part of this debate. And to ensure that the public’s right to know is not compromised if and when new guidelines are drawn up. The public needs to be able to trust the justice system. That will never happen if it takes place behind closed doors.

We all hope for Wilbee’s safe return. But it is utterly wrong to blame a newspaper for his disappearance.

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