08:46, July 01 98 0 theguardian.com

2019-07-01 08:46:05
First thoughts  
 Cliff Richard is right to seek anonymity for those accused of sex crimes

The injustice suffered by Cliff Richard in 2017 defied the maxim “words can never hurt you”. Anonymously accused of a sex crime, his good name was devastated by a publicity-seeking police force in collusion with a scoop-seeking BBC. Both later admitted fault and the BBC paid damages.

Similar calumny was visited on other public figures, including the broadcaster Paul Gambaccini, former MP Harvey Proctor and assorted VIPs, their names apparently culled from the newspapers and declared “credible” by a gullible London police. The police thus became judge and jury in effectively punishing people for a crime of which none had been convicted or even charged. Prosecutors subsequently apologised to both Gambaccini and Proctor.

This week a petition is being raised for a parliamentary debate to end the rule, introduced in 2003, that those who accuse others of a sex crime can be anonymous for life, but those they accuse can be instantly named.

The rule was introduced to meet plausible complaints that rapes were being severely under-reported. There is evidence that accuser anonymity has indeed led to a rise in reporting sex crimes. But, as Gambaccini said on Monday, the imbalance of denying anonymity to the accused has breached two cardinal rules of natural justice. One is that those accused of a crime should not be named until formerly charged, to protect them from casual or malicious falsity. The other, given the inevitable publicity, is that innocence be assumed until guilt is proven. The casual dismissal of both principles in the 2003 act was extraordinary.

Sex crimes are complicated by the fact that evidence is sometimes hard to come by. This is indeed an argument for making the accuser anonymous. But the case for instantly revealing the identity of the accused is poor. It is that other witnesses might recognise the name and come forward, thus aiding the prosecution in proceeding to a charge.

That might apply to any crime. In the case of sex crimes, the clear risk is of massive reputational damage. Richard and Gambaccini are not arguing for an end to anonymity, only for pre-charge anonymity for the accused. The victims of the present injustice are not just VIPs, though they too are entitled to equity at law. Victims have included doctors, executives, the clergy, many ordinary people who have found their name stained, and lost their jobs and families.

The ever-expanding legal realm of hate speech and causing offence accepts that words can hurt and harm. Reputations are as precious as heads, arms, legs and property. But the feeding frenzy of the internet is terrifying enough already without being fed by the British justice system. Pre-charge anonymity is a sound principle, one that parliament should now uphold.

Simon Jenkins is a Guardian columnist