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Anonymity for child abuse suspects?

On  Sunday 22 September 2002, early editions of the Observer carried a front-page story about the Home Affairs Select Committee's inquiry into police trawling operations. The article, by the paper's political editor Kamal Ahmed, revealed some of the contents of an early draft of the committee's report. The report will apparently call for new guidelines and express concerns 'that there have been a number of miscarriages of justice in cases based on evidence obtained by trawling'. 

The story which appeared in the Observer, however, focused on another recommendation said to be contained in the draft - namely that people who are accused of sexual offences should be granted anonymity until they are convicted.

It would appear, however, that in order to fit the story onto the front page, an Observer subeditor had cut the last three paragraphs (which also disappeared from the online version). In later editions of the paper the story was put on page 3 and the paragraphs were restored. They read as follows:

'The committee says it understands
that there is often a need for police to name suspects so that appeals for information can be made public. It therefore suggests that there should be a 'window' during which the person can be named, but that as soon as they are charged their anonymity should be protected. The protection would remain in place unless the person were convicted or a court order overturned the anonymity clause. Although the committee was investigating child abuse in particular, its recommendation on anonymity cut across all sex offences.

'Home Office sources said that although they would not rule out a change in the law, they were yet to be convinced of a need for a change.

'"Identification is a cornerstone of our criminal justice system," said one Whitehall source. "There would have to be exceptional circumstances for us to turn that on its head. The public must be able to see that justice is being done."'

The missing paragraphs clearly make a big difference. Although granting anonymity to suspects would address only some of the injustices associated with trawling operations, such a move would nevertheless be welcome. However, if the full Observer report is accurate, the Home Affairs Committee is not currently putting forward any such robust proposal. Instead it is proposing a 'window' when those accused can be named. The idea that people accused of sexual offences, whose identity has already been made public, can subsequently have their anomymity 'protected' is clearly a nonsense. By that stage their anonymity will already have been destroyed along, in some cases at least, with their reputation.

The reason why all this is so worrying is that what the Observer report suggests, if it is accurate, is that the Home Affairs Committee may - in an early draft of its report at least - have started to compromise already in anticipation of the hostile reaction truly radical recommedations might provoke from relevant ministers and other interested parties.

A recent leader in the Spectator
 conveys extremely well the manner in which the present government has chosen to intensify the moral panic surrounding paedophilia for its own populist ends. 'By granting official backing to the hysteria over paedophilia', it writes, '[the government] has made it difficult for anyone accused of child abuse to get a fair trial.' If the Home Affairs Committee is intimidated by the resulting atmosphere into watering down its own more robust proposals before they are even published, it will fail to convey the extent of the perversion of justice which has resulted from trawling operations. It will also fail in its principal aim - that of halting the miscarriages of justice which such operations have brought about. 

It is therefore to be hoped that, if the Observer story about the report's early draft is accurate, later drafts of the report will become stronger rather than weaker.

The Home Affairs Committee, under the chairmanship of Chris Mullin, has been given on this occasion a task which, while not difficult in itself, requires exceptional moral courage and strength of purpose on the part of its members if it is to be discharged properly.  It remains to be seen whether it will prove equal to this task.


Richard Webster, 2002