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July 15, 2019updated 30 Sep 2022 8:02am

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

By Gabrielle Shaw

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.

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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 

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