Media bosses have called for police to reverse “draconian” plans to withhold the names of suspects accused of a range of serious offences, warning it could usher in a “chilling era of secret justice”.
Proposed changes to the College of Policing’s media relations guidance state that forces across England and Wales no longer “should” name those charged with a wide range of crimes – including indecent exposure, domestic violence or child sexual abuse – instead advising that individuals “can be named”.
The new advice suggests suspects should be named only “where the crime is of a serious nature such as rape or murder”, or where the incident has already been reported in the media or on social media sites.
But individual police forces could choose whether or not to name suspects for a range of other crimes such as arson, grievous bodily harm and robbery.
The new guidelines could make it much harder for journalists to cover cases, as reporters need a defendant’s name to find details on their first court appearance.
Crime reporters have warned the changes could usher in a “new chilling era of secret justice”.
Concerns have previously been raised about a lack of transparency around some cases, including speeding offences, which are handled under the single justice system, a process where alleged crimes are dealt with on paper only and not in open court.
Rebecca Camber, chair of the Crime Reporters Association, said: “We fear this guidance could usher in a new chilling era of secret justice. This would allow police forces to cherry-pick what criminal charges they release.
“It is a significant threat to the principles of open justice. The notion that forces ‘should be more inclined’ to release charging information because it has appeared on Twitter, or because it is a more serious crime, runs contrary to the fundamental fairness of our criminal justice system and democracy.
“What about cases which haven’t already been reported in the media, do they now remain secret as a result? If police forces have the power to choose which criminal charges they can release, what is to stop them hushing up the prosecution of police officers?
“The Casey Review serves as a timely reminder of the importance of transparency and accountability for police forces.”
The Society of Editors, which represents about 400 national and regional media companies, said any changes to the College of Policing’s guidelines must “strengthen” rather than “restrict” the public’s right to know.
The society’s executive director Dawn Alford said: “The society is deeply concerned that proposals contained within the revised guidance look set to place unprecedented restrictions upon the flow of information provided by the police to journalists.
“Misplaced concerns around data protection and defendants’ privacy rights are being used as a basis to allow forces to choose which criminal charges they confirm to the media, and non-custodial penalties such as fines, out-of-court disposals and cautions could become non-verifiable with press officers.
“A successful working relationship between the police and the media remains essential to policing legitimacy in the UK and the society remains in dialogue with the College of Policing to reverse these draconian proposals and strengthen, rather than restrict, the public’s right to know.”
The Society of Editors added that the driving force for the change in guidelines was understood to be making sure that guidance was compatible with data protection law.
The proposed changes state that police forces “must consider their data protection obligations as well as the need for open justice and transparency”.
Owen Meredith, chief executive of the News Media Association, said that professional guidance should “help and support police officers in achieving a good relationship with the media, rather than erecting new barriers that entrench secrecy.”
A College of Policing spokesman said: “A successful working relationship between the police service and the media is vital. Guidance is in place to support the relationship between the media and police forces and was previously developed working with the media.
“The guidance requires updating following the introduction of new data protection legislation. We are working with the Society of Editors, the Crime Reporters Association and the Information Commissioner’s Office to develop new guidance which will be published soon.”
Additional reporting by PA