Sexual Misconduct Claims against Conservative MP: What Stops the Media from Naming Rape Suspects?

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Dr. Alexandros Antoniou, Lecturer in Media Law, University of Essex

The allegations of sexual misconduct against an unnamed Conservative MP have received significant media coverage lately. The Sunday Times reported that the ex-minister was taken into custody on Saturday 1 August 2020 after a former parliamentary employee accused them of rape, sexual assault and coercive control. The MP has not been named publicly so far. But what stops the media from naming rape suspects? There are several aspects of media law which are relevant to this case.

To start with, the Tory MP remains anonymous partly because of recent developments in the law of privacy. Cliff Richard’s legal action against the BBC in 2018 established that suspects of law enforcement investigations enjoy ‘a reasonable expectation of privacy’ up to the point of charge. This general principle was endorsed by the Court of Appeal in the subsequent case of ZXC v Bloomberg LP in May 2020. Giving lead judgment in this case, Lord Justice Simon stated:

[…] those who have simply come under suspicion by an organ of the state have, in general, a reasonable and objectively founded expectation of privacy in relation to that fact and an expressed basis for that suspicion. The suspicion may ultimately be shown to be well-founded or ill-founded, but until that point the law should recognise the human characteristic to assume the worst (that there is no smoke without fire); and to overlook the fundamental legal principle that those who are accused of an offence are deemed to be innocent until they are proven guilty.

[para. 82]

This does not necessarily mean that the media cannot report on criminal investigations. Such investigations can only lawfully be reported where there are countervailing public interest grounds to outweigh the suspect’s privacy interests and justify disclosure of their name (e.g. where the individual under investigation is a political figure). Different media organisations’ approach to this balancing exercise may, however, vary; hence, some media outlets may decide to name the suspect more quickly than others.

Furthermore, an alleged victim of a sexual offence enjoys an automatic right to lifelong anonymity under section 1 of the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Act 1992 and should not be identified in a written publication available to the public or a relevant programme for reception in England and Wales. The anonymity applies from the time an allegation is made by the alleged victim or anyone else. Section 5 of the 1992 Act makes it an offence to breach these provisions. The individual concerned may waive their right to anonymity if specific requirements are fulfilled and a court can lift the anonymity in certain circumstances, but this happens only rarely. One practical implication of these statutory provisions is that the media must be mindful of the potential for ‘jigsaw’ identification, i.e. piecing together different bits of information that create a more complete picture of an individual whose identity should be concealed. This means that the media must limit the publication of any matter ‘likely to lead’ to the complainant’s identification and as a result, care is needed with detail.

There could also be libel risks if, prior to any charge, a suggestion is published that an identified suspect may be guilty of a crime. A media report which includes the suspect’s name may allow that individual to successfully sue the publisher for defamation if the investigation does not lead to a prosecution. The media can safely publish the name of a person under investigation if the name is officially supplied by a spokesperson for a governmental agency, e.g. the police. This is because the report will be protected by the defence of qualified privilege in defamation law. It is anticipated that most media outlets will wait until the individual concerned has been named by the police. Finally, the publication of details which turn out to be incorrect could result in a conviction for contempt of court if a judge thinks that the material published created ‘a substantial risk of serious prejudice or impediment’ to the legal proceedings.

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