The editors of the Sun and Mirror newspapers have condemned creeping privacy laws that left the media unable to name an MP who has been arrested on suspicion of rape.
A Conservative MP was arrested and bailed on suspicion of rape, sexual assault, indecent assault, abuse of position of trust and misconduct in a public office in May but has not yet been publicly named due to a change in legal precedent.
A significant legal factor was a privacy case against Bloomberg that reached the Supreme Court, which in February set a precedent that a person under criminal investigation has a right to privacy before they are charged.
Editors naming the MP face the risk of a civil legal action of breach of privacy.
Speaking on a panel of editors at the Newsworks Festival of News in London on Thursday, Sun editor-in-chief Victoria Newton said: “More than libel now, privacy is the issue,” in terms of laws having a chilling effect on publishers.
Newton (pictured, second left) added that the Bloomberg case had “really changed the landscape”.
Regarding the fact the media was unable to name the arrested MP, Newton said: “That, to me, is a shock.”
She explained that if The Sun, or another newspaper, were to report the MP’s name they would open themselves up to a £1m bill “and probably more” if the man was not eventually charged.
She said: “I personally think there’s a great deal of public interest in being able to name an MP who’s been arrested for a violent crime because we’ve seen before with Rolf Harris and Stuart Hall and so on that it’s often helped more people come forward to be able to prove those really, really outrageous crimes and it scares me that we are now in a society where arrests are private.”
In 2013 The Sun was the first to report that former children’s TV entertainer Harris had been arrested on suspicion of sex offences despite threats from his lawyers and a lack of co-operation from police. The newspaper later said “more women did then come forward”. A month later, police said publicity around the arrest of former BBC TV and radio personality Hall led to more victims getting in touch.
Newton said on Thursday: “I think it’s an important part of open justice that we should know what’s going on…”
She acknowledged that social media and the internet had “changed everything” as suspect’s families can be subject to “pile-ons”, adding: “I totally understand that but it does worry me that we’ve become a society where arrests are private.”
The discussion came a day after singer Sir Cliff Richard and DJ Paul Gambaccini, who were both falsely accused of sex offences and named in the media, revived a campaign calling for suspects to have their anonymity protected by law unless they are charged.
Sir Cliff, who won a privacy case against the BBC in 2018 after the broadcaster flew a helicopter over his home during coverage of a police raid of his home although he was never arrested, told a press conference at the House of Lords he has learnt “how desperate it is to be accused of something you never did. We just need to change it [the law] a little bit. It’s just a compromise”. Sir Cliff’s case has itself set a precedent and has since repeatedly been cited by lawyers trying to stop publication of clients’ names.
Mirror editor-in-chief Alison Phillips (pictured, second right) agreed with Newton on the risks to open justice and told the Newsworks panel: “Do we really want to be a society where the police are going round arresting people and we don’t know what they’ve done and who they’ve done it to and why?”
She raised concerns that the arrested MP had been allowed to vote in Monday’s confidence vote in Boris Johnson, and both she and Newton raised concerns that the MP’s constituents are not aware of the allegations.
Phillips said his voters “absolutely have a right to know”.
However Evening Standard acting editor Charlotte Ross (pictured, left) gave a slightly different take, noting that there are fears that naming the man could lead to the identification of his alleged victim or victims through jigsaw identification.
She said she “generally agrees” with the legal points made but that this case is “slightly more nuanced”.
Ross said she and her team “did discuss this case in a lot of detail and decided not to take a strong position on it for that reason”.
The editors also discussed Partygate after Boris Johnson described the row as “the media’s favourite obsession” in a letter to his MPs ahead of Monday evening’s confidence vote.
Phillips pointed to polls showing that it “isn’t a media bubble story” and that it “touched people in a visceral way”. A Yougov poll on 25 May showed that 59% of people thought Johnson should resign after the publication of Sue Gray’s report into Partygate, while three-quarters believed he knowingly lied about breaking lockdown rules.
Phillips, whose paper originally broke the news of lockdown-breaching parties in Downing Street in November, added that Johnson was trying to “other” the media and “undermine us” by making it out to be a “lefty media London bubble story”.
Newton said Partygate had not initially been a popular story among Sun readers and that although it grew into a big story for them they now want the paper “to move on” as they care more about issues like the cost of living crisis.
In response, Phillips said: “I agree… people are living the cost of living crisis every day and every moment, but I think people can care about more than one thing at the same time. I don’t think it’s an either/or situation.”