The Speaker of the House of Commons, Sir Lindsay Hoyle, has urged a Conservative MP who was arrested on May 17 over a rape allegation dating back more than a decade to stay away from Parliament during the police investigation.
But many people not versed in English law have been wondering why the individual in question, said only to be a man in his 50s, has not been identified by the police or the media.
It is not due to a sinister conspiracy, but rather due to a number of factors.
In English law, someone can be arrested and held for some time before being charged with an offence or they can be brought in for questioning without being formally arrested.
Up until 2011 or so it had been the practice, especially of the tabloid press, to name people who had been arrested or brought in for questioning.
Named, Shamed … and Then Acquitted
In November 2007 The Sun newspaper had a photographer on the scene—after being tipped off by police—when high profile football manager Harry Redknapp was arrested at his home in Dorset on charges related to corruption. Five years later Redknapp, by then manager of Tottenham Hotspur, was acquitted of tax evasion at Southwark Crown Court.
Then, in 2014, police raided the home of former pop star Sir Cliff Richard—but did not arrest him—during an investigation into historical sex abuse.
At the time the BBC was reeling from criticism of its role in covering up allegations of serial child sex abuse by Jimmy Savile, a former BBC presenter who died in 2011.
But Sir Cliff was never charged with any offence and in 2018 the High Court ruled the BBC’s coverage of his arrest was a “serious invasion” of privacy and the corporation was later ordered to pay £2 million ($2.5 million) towards his legal costs.
In 2017 the College of Policing, which oversees English and Welsh police forces, published guidance recommending suspects not be identified by the arresting force to the media except in “exceptional circumstances.”
‘Suspects Should Not Be Identified’
This guidance states: “Suspects should not be identified to the media (by disclosing names or other identifying information) prior to the point of charge, except where justified by clear circumstances, such as a threat to life, the prevention or detection of crime, or a matter of public interest and confidence.”
The 2012 Leveson report on media standards (pdf) recommended suspects not be named by the media unless they had been charged.
The identity of the Conservative MP at the centre of the rape allegations is widely known and on Twitter there are numerous tweets mentioning him indirectly.
It is a key tenet of English justice that a person remains “innocent until proven guilty” by a court of law and the burden of proof remains with the prosecution.
Media coverage is limited by the Contempt of Court Act, which is designed to prevent trials from being prejudiced.
Unlike in the United States, where there is a constitutional right to free speech, journalists and indeed private citizens on social media must not publish information that might prejudice the trial of a person who has been charged with a crime.
Under the Contempt of Court Act, criminal proceedings become “active” as soon as a person has been arrested, or charged, and remain so until there is a verdict in their trial or the charges are dropped by the prosecution.
The Conservatives have told the MP in question, who is on police bail, to stay away from Parliament while allegations of sexual assault, abuse of a position of trust, and misconduct in public office are being investigated.
Bad Taste Joke by Fabricant
Earlier this week another Conservative MP, Michael Fabricant, was criticised after he joked on Twitter that there would be a “strong turnout” of Tory MPs at Prime Minister’s Questions on May 18 to prove they were not the MP at the centre of the allegation. Fabricant later apologised.
On May 19 policing minister Kit Malthouse said there was a need to be “sensitive” about the anonymity of suspects under investigation, adding that it put “enormous strain on individuals” who sometimes are not prosecuted.
In 1995, after being acquitted of rape after a trial, actor Craig Charles called for the law to be changed so that those accused of rape remain anonymous until convicted.
In 2010 the new Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition initially said it would change the law to protect the identity of those accused of rape but later dropped the idea.
Anonymity of Those Reporting Rape
Under the 1992 Sexual Offences (Amendment) Act women, or indeed men, who claim to have been raped are entitled to anonymity for life. Occasionally this has been waived by women who wanted to highlight the effects of rape.
The first person to waive their right to anonymity was Jill Saward, who was tied up and raped at a vicarage in Ealing, west London in 1986.
In 2012 nine people pleaded guilty to naming a woman, on Twitter, who accused footballer Ched Evans of raping her. The law grants lifelong anonymity to rape complainants.
Evans was jailed for rape but his conviction was quashed on appeal and he was acquitted at a retrial in 2016.