On the afternoon of Thursday 14th August 2014, police attended at a Berkshire residence to carry out a search of the property. They had apparently received a complaint from somebody and decided that searching the property was something that should be done in order to investigate the complaint. Nothing so unusual about that, you may think. After all, it is something that happens daily, up and down the country, when complaints are made to the police.
What happened in this case, however, is slightly more unusual. According to Amanda Platell in this morning’s Daily Mail*, the police admitted that they had confirmed to the BBC that they were going to search the property. Having received this information, the BBC then obviously do what any self-respecting national television station would do and turn up at the property to secure as much footage as they can about the ‘story’.
Amanda Platell may be a veritable bottomless pit of misplaced moral outrage but I suspect, rather like the broken watch that tells the correct time twice a day, she has probably hit upon an issue here which, in the interests of justice, needs to be addressed, and quickly.
The person whose home was being searched last Thursday is a ‘national celebrity’. That fact, obviously, secures him no immunity from the law and its processes. What it does do, however, is mean that in the event that ‘plod’ comes knocking at his or her door, it is going to arouse the interest of the media if and when they find out there is a criminal allegation being made against them. The bigger they are, the harder they fall, and the media has an economic interest in stories involving ‘celebrities’. And if these ‘stories’ involve allegations of some of the most detested and detestable human behaviour, the more interest there is going to be. The media know that the public is now almost seemingly intoxicated by the cult of celebrity, and will milk that for all it is worth.
The media, like all of us, are subject to restrictions on what can or can’t be said about a story like the one I have described above. Why not? Because in the event that the matter comes to trial, it is essential that the individual concerned can secure a fair trial by a jury who have not been influenced by extraneous material and by soaking up what is often little more than the groundless opinion of others. The legal process often involves, for example, applications being made by the defence for certain evidence to be excluded under statutes such as sections 76 and 78 of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 and others. The more the case has been discussed and commented on in the media, the greater the likelihood that the jury may become aware of matters which, if they are deemed legally inadmissible, they should not. The fairness of any trial is then thrown into doubt.
But the possible legal implications are not the only ones that are at play here. As Amanda Platell probably rightly suggests, the implications of how this particular story has been reported go beyond legal issues. It touches upon how we, as human beings, respond when we are told that an unnamed complainant has suggested the commission of a repugnant criminal offence by another, ‘celebrity’ or otherwise. Many of us may be able to look at matters such as this objectively, and say something like ‘Well, he (or she) is innocent until they are proven guilty’, but should we have to?
Anyone who knows me will know I am a hardened opponent of any but the most necessary legal regulations to ensure that society functions in a way which creates the most harmony for the most people, and in any event justice and fairness for all. What I question about what has happened since Thursday lunchtime, when this story broke, is why the person was ever named, or details of the search disclosed. The inevitable media frenzy creates potential injustice and unfairness, and an atmosphere in which an individual (whatever the eventual outcome) has had his or her reputation brought into the public spotlight for examination.
None of us should engage in any kind of comment or speculation in relation to the individual concerned. Although we all now know who it is, I have deliberately refrained from using his name, and the only reason for mentioning the incident at all is because it highlights something I suggest we need to address now, particularly bearing in mind the ongoing police operations and enquiries into serious allegations of child abuse by ‘prominent’ people.
I have two questions arising out of all of this. Firstly, should the name of anyone who has not been charged with a criminal offence ever be made public in relation to an ongoing criminal investigation? Whilst in the vast majority of cases, the press have no interest in reporting pre-charge (or even post-charge) criminal cases, I suggest that cases like this serve only to run the risk of blighting someone’s reputation unnecessarily and increase the prospects of a trial being rendered unfair. Secondly, should the name of an accused person after being charged with a sexual offence ever be made public prior to conviction? This is, perhaps, the more debatable issue, bearing in mind it cannot be denied that releasing limited details of the name of an accused and some information about the charges may lead to other victims coming forward and making the case against him/her more compelling.
As I invite responses to these questions, I make one appeal. Please do not mention the name of any individual who has not been convicted of any criminal offence. It is not necessary to make your point, and the questions are aimed at stimulating a debate about the general issue, and not specific individuals.
* ‘Cliff Doesn’t Deserve This Lurid Trial By Television’: Amanda Platell Daily Mail 16th August 2014: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/debate/article-2726393/PLATELLS-PEOPLE-Cliff-doesnt-deserve-lurid-trial-television.html
Mark Fletton is a former barrister. He is now a writer/researcher and lives in Exeter.