The case of the nurse arrested in connection with the contamination of saline at Stepping Hill Hospital has yet again raised the question of whether or not the British media should be able to name suspects before they face trial. Rebecca Leighton was held in custody for six weeks, whilst police investigated the deaths of three patients, before being released without charge on 2 September. Yet, despite being cleared by police of any wrongdoing, she remains suspended from work pending an investigation by her employers, and perhaps more seriously is the victim of a hate campaign by her neighbours, clearly feeling the ‘no smoke without fire’ mantra more appropriate than ‘innocent until proven guilty.’
This is nothing new though. For years, the media has rolled out the ‘public interest’ card when questioned about the ethical implications of naming suspects, despite fears this could lead to unfair trials of those involved or kangaroo court justice from those failing to accept the accused were not actually guilty. But is it really in the public interest to name and shame a suspect, to lead the national character assassination of someone before the courts have had a chance to determine guilt or innocence? Let’s look at the case of Chris Jefferies, the improbably blue-haired ex-public school teacher who was arrested on suspicion of the murder of Joanna Yeates. His ‘loner’ persona and apparent oddball behaviour made him a red-top dream. His past was published through the accounts of seemingly every person Jefferies had ever shared a conversation with. Again, Jefferies was released without charge and a new suspect (we won’t name him) is in court recently charged with her murder. It begs the question, how Jefferies could have been given a fair trial had he actually gone to court, when there wasn’t a newspaper or TV station in the country which had jumped on the bandwagon.
There is ‘apparently’ a law to prevent this from happening. Under the Contempt of Court Act 1981, it is criminal contempt of court to publish anything which creates a risk that the course of justice in proceedings may be seriously impaired. It applies where proceedings are active. The clause prevents the newspapers and media from publishing material that is too extreme or sensationalist about a criminal case until the trial is over and the jury has given its verdict. However, time and time again, from Colin Stagg and Barry George to Brit Louise Woodward, the media’s lust for naming and shaming comes before ensuring a fair trial. Well it would wouldn’t it? ‘Mr X arrested for murder’ does not sell papers….
Editors seemingly happy to ignore legislation have been allowed to get away with this behaviour for too long. However those days may soon be over. The High Court has granted the attorney general permission to bring proceedings against the Sun and Daily Mirror following their reports about the December arrest of Jefferies. British Transport Chief Constable Andy Trotter has added his weight behind the campaign to protect suspects before they have their day in court.
As social media and the protection of identities from the mainstream becomes an increasingly difficult challenge, traditional media has an important role to play in protecting human rights ahead of salacious reporting. There needs to be clarity on just where the law stands and how those involved in crimes are reported on in the mainstream media, regardless of their supposed innocence or guilt. The consequences of not doing so, as Leighton et al can testify (no pun intended), can be life changing.