When did the standard police practice of not revealing the names of those arrested suddenly become a bad thing? I’d always thought of it as a protection for people who are mere suspects, or could even be considered the police’s helpers (as in people who are “helping the police with their enquiries”). These people are entitled to full legal representation, and also entitled to not being the subject of gossip and speculation until the evidence is considered sufficiently strong enough for them to be at least charged with an offence. Now, however, all of a sudden this practice is being mentioned as if it is sinister; as part of a lack of transparency indicative of a “secret arrest” that must surely presage some extra-judicial disappearance. So what changed? And why? I can remember no clamour from the public to suddenly name names, so where has it come from?
While you’re here, do you remember Dave Jones? The erstwhile manager of Southampton, he was kindly relieved of that position after he had been charged with twenty-one offences of child abuse dating from when he was a social worker in Formby between in 1986 to 1990. In the event the case collapsed like a house of cards; it appeared that the police, unable to obtain the evidence to make an individual charge stick, had engaged in the process of “trawling”, whereby rather than gathering the evidence to prove a single offence they had instead presented several similar offences at the same time in the hope that the weight of each allegation would strengthen and support the other, so to produce a guilty verdict. It failed, and the police were heavily criticised for their behaviour. Fast forward a few years, of course, and various police forces were investigating various complaints against Jimmy Savile but were again struggling to make their cases. Alas, these different police forces were investigating individually and had failed to share their evidence. If only they had communicated better, it was said, then they could have pooled their investigations and surely the combined weight of these separate investigations would have strengthened and supported the other, so to produce a guilty verdict? But that didn’t happen, they failed, and the police were heavily criticised for their behaviour.
Anyway. Back in the world of “secret arrests”; and the Daily Telegraph is vexed. It is appalled that recent police guidelines on the matter of revealing suspects names, which were previously subject to interpretation by different forces, have been tightened up to favour a policy of “not telling”. Their editorial features a lovely screenshot from the film 1984 just to hammer home where they’re coming from, in case you were wondering. Their nose has been especially put out of joint by the fact that “ACPO could not be convinced by the arguments of this newspaper” in opposing the plan, and they go on to bewail that they are “a profession whose reputation has plummeted in recent years”. Oh, to clarify, I ought to point out that it’s the police they’re referring to there, not the media.
Meanwhile, elsewhere the paper reports that Keir Starmer, the Director of Public Prosecutions, is also arguing against such a “blanket ban” on naming suspects. He doesn’t call for codifying specific instances where suspects should be named, however; for instance, dangerous suspects on the run. No, instead he calls for “wriggle room”, specifically where “there’s not enough evidence to charge but there may be other allegations out there”. Okay. I guess that’s not trawling; but it certainly seems like an invitation to be trawled. Does he remember Dave Jones? Perhaps. But he’s not thinking of Dave Jones here; at least not for now (he’s not been in the papers for a bit). No, he’s thinking of Stuart Hall, and understandably so considering the role the publicity of his arrest made in further victims coming forward; but forgetting, perhaps, that, Hall pleaded guilty before his case made it far as Jones’s did.
In truth I have no strongly held feelings either way on the matter of naming suspects. I can for sure see the pros and cons in both approaches, and although I think calling for “wriggle room” is a bit like calling for “more vagueness and confusion”, I just hope Starmer’s statement is a considered one which takes account of the long view, and is not one largely based upon whatever is flavour of the month today. But I’m ultimately glad that I’m not the one who has to draw the boundaries here; and I’m especially ultimately glad that the Telegraph’s noble position is based upon their firm, long-running and continuing commitment to our individual human rights, and not upon their displeasure at being initially thwarted in splashing Rolf Harris’s name across their front page at the earliest possible opportunity.