Defendant anonymity: an update

The 14 August 2014 search of Sir Cliff Richard’s Berkshire home after an allegation of sexual molestation of a minor in 1985 and the attendant press coverage highlight the pressing need for defendant anonymity in alleged sexual offence cases, as we claimed in two recent posts.

Various aspects of this event demand inquiry.

Cliff Richard, on holiday in Portugal, was given no notice of the search. But the press probably were, since they were able to send reporters and helicopters to cover the story as it happened. South Yorkshire police have said that news of their search of Richard’s property had been leaked to the BBC, but that they were not to blame.

Cliff Richard certainly believes that the press were forewarned, and issued this statement:-

For many months I have been aware of allegations against me of historic impropriety, which have been circulating online. The allegations are completely false. Up until now, I have chosen not to dignify the false allegations with a response, as it would just give them more oxygen. However, the police attended my apartment in Berkshire today without notice, except, it would appear, to the press. I am not presently in the UK but it goes without saying that I will cooperate fully should the police wish to speak to me.

Why were the media forewarned of this search?

And so the trial by media commences, before the entertainer has even been questioned by police. There are already news articles (too many to cite) about Richard’s bachelor lifestyle, his Christian faith, his homes in various parts of the world. There are aerial shots of the Berkshire home which was the subject of the raid, and long lens photos of police officers donning latex gloves to comb through the property.

Richard will no doubt be interviewed by police. But, even if he is not charged, or if he is charged, tried and acquitted, the die is already cast. The merest suggestion of this kind of sexual impropriety stains a person’s life, and Richard will need to live under this shadow for some time to come.

Presciently, we suggested in our second post on defendant anonymity that the identity of people such as Nigel Evans, charged and then acquitted of sexual offences, should not be available for media reporting unless and until a conviction ensues. And now Evans has argued on television – rightly, in our view – that there should be defendant anonymity in these cases.

Whatever the final outcome for Cliff Richard and others, the point holds true. A person is innocent until proven guilty, and there should be no trial by media. We are all for freedom of the press. But today the press has license to smear and to ruin people’s lives. There urgently needs to be a ban on publicising the names of those against whom sexual allegations are made.