Police forces across England and Wales could soon be given the option of not releasing the names of people charged with offences under new guidelines drawn up by the College of Policing.
The draft guidance tells forces that suspects charged with offences “can be named”. The existing guidance is that they “should be named”.
Forces would be encouraged to identify charged individuals “on the grounds of open justice and transparency”. But the College of Policing proposals, which have been shared with large publishers for feedback before release to forces, say that naming charged suspects “should be done on a case by case basis to ensure that data protection compliance is considered and the necessity and justifications for each disclosure are documented”.
The draft says: “Forces should be more inclined to release charging information where the crime is of a serious nature, such as rape or murder, where the incident has already been reported in the media or on social media sites, or for public reassurance reasons.”
Journalists are concerned that the guidelines would damage open justice.
Speaking at a conference last week, Rebecca Camber, crime and security editor of the Daily Mail and chair of the Crime Reporters Association, said: “Ten years ago people were naming on arrest. That’s not happening anymore. Now there’s a question mark about naming on charge. And that seems to be completely inappropriate.”
News groups are also opposed to existing guidelines in the College of Policing’s media relations guide that state the “identities of people dealt with by cautions, speeding fines and other fixed penalties – out-of-court disposals – should not be released or confirmed”. Camber said this guidance meant that if a journalist asked the police whether Boris Johnson had been fined over Partygate, “then the answer is: ‘We can’t tell you.’”
The College of Policing, the national policing standards body, has included a new section in its media guidance on data protection. Citing General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and the Data Protection Act, the draft guidance tells forces they “must consider their data protection obligations as well as the need for open justice and transparency”.
GDPR and the Data Protection Act, overseen by the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), are understood to be the driving factors behind the proposed media policy changes.
A spokesperson for the ICO said the change in wording in the College of Policing's draft guidance "reflects a move away from an expectation of naming a person and steers towards making a case-by-case decision. The principle of our open justice system does however mean it’s likely that a defendant’s name will be published by the courts at trial, which will be a factor in any police decision whether to withhold the name prior to that (i.e. at charging) and we’d encourage the controller to make a decision based on public interest balanced alongside the privacy rights of the individual."
The ICO said it had previously dealt with complaints against police forces for not "naming people charged with offences", for example through Freedom of Information requests. The spokesperson provided a link to an example involving the Metropolitan Police, and said: "In most of these cases, we have found that the police force was correct to withhold that information (or not confirm that the information is held) under the personal data exemption and/or the investigations exemption."
Dawn Alford, executive director of the Society of Editors, said: “The Society is deeply concerned that proposals contained within the revised guidance look set to place unprecedented restrictions upon the flow of information provided by the police to journalists.
“Misplaced concerns around data protection and defendants’ privacy rights are being used as a basis to allow forces to choose which criminal charges they confirm to the media and non-custodial penalties such as fines, out of court disposals and cautions, could become non-verifiable with press officers.
“A successful working relationship between the police and the media remains essential to policing legitimacy in the UK and the Society remains in dialogue with the College of Policing to reverse these draconian proposals and strengthen, rather than restrict, the public’s right to know.”
A College of Policing spokesperson said: “A successful working relationship between the police service and the media is vital. Guidance is in place to support the relationship between the media and police forces and was previously developed working with the media.
“The guidance requires updating following the introduction of new data protection legislation. We are working with the Society of Editors, the Crime Reporters Association and the Information Commissioner’s Office to develop new guidance which will be published soon.”
Update, 22 March: In response to this report, the News Media Association and National Union of Journalists issued statements opposing the proposed guidelines.
NMA chief executive Owen Meredith. He said: “We are deeply concerned by these proposed changes which would weaken the flow of information from police forces to the general public, undermining the public right to know.
"Professional guidance must create a framework to help and support police officers in achieving a good relationship with the media, rather than erecting new barriers that entrench secrecy.
"We urge the College of Policing to work with publishers and editors through constructive consultation to establish guidance which enables the public to fully see and understand the important work of our police forces."
Professor Chris Frost, chair of the National Union of Journalists’ Ethics Council, said: “Open justice is vital for a just legal system and the public deserves to know who is charged with what in their name.
"The police have slowly eroded the right of the public to know what is being done in their name, first failing to identify suspects, then failing to name those arrested.
"It was only a matter of time before they took the first step to stop naming those charged.
"They must pull back from this final removal of the right to know so that those who have anything to add to a criminal charge, either in support of the person charged or in support of the police can come forward.
"It should not be up to the police or the defence to decide what we get to know."
Analysis: The degradation of police-press relations and access to information
Relations between the police and press have regularly come under strain over the past decade. In 2012 both the Leveson Inquiry and the Filkin report placed a microscope on the (sometimes inappropriate) relationship between journalists and police employees.
In the 11 years since, the level of information available to crime journalists (and therefore the public) has been significantly reduced.
Speaking on a panel at the Society of Editors’ Media Freedom Conference last week, Anthony France, crime correspondent for the Evening Standard, said the job of a crime reporter has become “much harder” in recent years.
France said that when he started his career, if “two cars crashed, you would be told the name of the driver and the name of the other driver. If there was an assault, you were told the name of the people who were involved.”
As part of his job, France said he regularly calls the Met Police press office to check what he should be reporting to his readers across London. He said can be told “nothing happening, all quiet” only to discover shortly afterwards that there has been a murder somewhere in the capital.
“They’re their own worst enemy sometimes,” he added. “Because obviously we’ve got deadlines, and the paper goes out and people in London haven’t read about something that something that’s happened in their area.”
Speaking on the same panel, Rebecca Camber, crime and security editor of the Daily Mail and chair of the Crime Reporters Association, said: “The way to solve crimes is often to use media. But the problem is that a lot of chief constables, a lot of forces, think: ‘Well, we can circumvent that by using social media. We don’t necessarily have to brief you guys – we can just do it and tweet it out and it’s the same effect.” Camber pointed out that most members of the public do not spend their days “trawling through police Twitter feeds”.
The police and press have clashed over numerous high-profile cases in the recent past. The latest concerned the disappearance and death of Nicola Bulley in Lancashire. Many journalists felt the police failed in their duty to keep the press and public updated on the progress of their case, which encouraged amateur sleuths to speculate and spread misinformation on social media. During its investigation, Lancashire Police released personal information about Bulley – including that she had been struggling with the menopause and alcohol. Meanwhile Bulley’s family was critical of media coverage of the case.
At the Society of Editors conference, Camber said she hoped the Bulley case would be a “watershed moment” for police-press relations. “If you don’t want to have another Nicola Bulley fiasco, then we need to find a way to have background briefings, where we get information. Not reportable it might be, but we need to have some sense of where the investigation is going and why they’re making the decisions they are. And that has happened in the past – Scotland Yard’s done it, Surrey Police have done it very successfully with major investigations – and this didn’t happen in this case.”
Camber added that “what really worries” her is that, instead of learning from these mistakes, the College of Policing composed new draft guidelines that would weaken information-sharing further.
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