Late last week rumours were rife that an iconic Australian Entertainer now living in London had been arrested on suspician of sexual offences. The arrest is apparently not directly related to the Jimmy Savile case but is part of Operation Yewtree which has drawn attention around the world.
While the mainstream media remained conspiciously quiet about the exact identity of the arrested man, twitter outed him as did a number of smaller online media outlets. The media in Australia said it was unable to identify the man for ‘legal reasons’ however no one could explain exactly what those reasons were or why suddenly this man was afforded anonymity when so many others before him were not.
Claire Harvey from The Sunday Telegraph explained her decision to refrain from naming the man in her column published over the weekend.
“So why do I think it’s not fair to name him?
“Not because I’m scared of any legal penalty for doing so, or because I’m worried about what the print media’s self-regulator, the Australian Press Council, might do to me.
“It’s because I believe we have absolutely no right to jump past the legal process.
“But people are named all the time as being questioned by police, you might argue. Sure – but they’re not hugely famous international celebrities.
“We have no confirmation – beyond gossip – of what this entertainer is supposed to have done.”
It’s a long time since I can recall such restraint and respect from journalists and so while this might explain Claire’s decision, I’m not convinced it speaks for the industry at large.
Then I read Nick Miller’s piece from the Sydney Morning Herald and suddenly the whole story made alot more sense.
Here’s Nick Miller’s explaination for why journalists are being so unusually coy about claiming a scoop …….
Last Friday journalists in London camped outside the home of an Australian entertainer in Berkshire. It was a chilly day, but most complaints weren’t about the weather. They were about the fact that they would not, unless someone broke ranks, be able to publish or broadcast the instantly recognisable name of the man they were pursuing.
Partly they were being kind. Partly they had legal fears. And partly it was due to the self-conscious paranoia that has enveloped British media for the past year.
Last week an 82 year-old man from Berkshire was arrested by British police on suspicion of sexual offences. He was not charged, but bailed to a date in May pending further inquiries. He is being investigated as part of Operation Yewtree, launched after claims emerged that the 1970s’ TV host Jimmy Savile had abused teenage girls.
The accusations against this man were not linked to Savile.
And that’s all the news fit to print according to official, on-the-record sources, and it’s pretty much all you can find in the mainstream, professional media.
However, those who tweet and blog have published the name of a high-profile Australian entertainer. ”What a disgrace mainstream media won’t name [the man],” one Twitterer tweeted.
”The MSM propaganda machine is working overtime in a bid to sway public opinion,” another blogged.
Australian PR director Geoffrey Stackhouse chose to name the entertainer and then use it as a ”teaching moment” to spruik for business on his company blog.
”Our legal system is based on the presumption of innocence, but sadly the court of public opinion is not,” he wrote, without apparent irony. It was not clear what his sources were for naming the entertainer.
Perhaps it was Twitter, which overflowed with the man’s name at the weekend, some being slightly cautious about it (that is, phrasing it as a question), most not, and many jumping straight to ”X is a paedo” without any visible pause to consider its basis in fact, legality or compassion.
Or Mr Stackhouse may have played an easy game of join-the-dots. In the age of Google, this narrows the field a tad. No wonder reporters at the stakeout expressed fervent hope the antipodes would be the first to break the naming taboo.
Fairfax Media has been unable to confirm from official sources the identity of the arrested man.
Politics and media blogger Paul Staines, aka Guido Fawkes, has jumped the hurdle that the press did not, naming the suspect on the principle of free speech. He blogged: ”a secret police is a dangerous thing, reporting the arrest of suspects is an important safeguard in a free society … No judge has ordered reporting restrictions in relation to [the man], no super-injunctions prevent the reporting of news concerning him.”
Staines told Fairfax many British media have plenty of evidence to confidently name the suspect – including seeing police at his house when it was raided last year – but arrests following the phone hacking scandal have led to a ”compliance structure” in the press.
Journalists have been arrested over their ”off-the-record” contact with police. Last week The Sun’s deputy editor Geoff Webster was in court, charged with authorising payments to public officials for information.
On the subject of professionalism required of police officers, the Leveson inquiry into press regulation said: ”Leaks about forthcoming arrests or the involvement of the famous in the criminal justice system are not in the public interest.”
In this climate, newsrooms are unable to report stories they used to. ”The Met[ropolitan Police] just won’t give you any guidance,” one reporter told Press Gazette in December. ”They say there’s no such thing as off-the-record any more.”
Fairfax understands that many in the British media have established the name off the record. But they can’t publish on this basis.
”If a newspaper published that it was [the person], they would be asked ‘how do you know?’,” Staines said. ”You can’t say that you have a contact at the Met who confirmed it. Well, you can say that to the editor but not the lawyer.” Staines said this was ”curtailing the freedom of the press through fear”.
Another reason for excessive caution is that media reforms prompted by the Leveson report are still in the hands of politicians and the public (and actor Hugh Grant). Offending the public mood could have long-term consequences for press freedom.
Still another is the recent scandal involving former Tory treasurer Lord McAlpine, who was wrongly accused of child abuse in a BBC Newsnight report. If this investigation came to naught after the entertainer’s name was tarnished, the press could take the blame.
”Heard of McAlpine?” one BBC reporter at the stakeout said. ”We’re never going to be the first to name anyone ever again.”
The accused man has helped keep things quiet. Others investigated by Yewtree angrily, publicly, quotably denied their guilt. In this case there has been silence. His agent does not return calls, emails or texts. The stakeout was uneventful.
Finally, and most generously, there is the ”being nice” explanation. The entertainer is much-loved by generations of TV-watchers. Police are taking the accusation seriously, but they evidently do not now have enough evidence to press charges. He is old, and reportedly was so upset by the accusation that he spent Christmas in hospital being treated for acute stress. His camp is said to be emphasising his frail health to newspapers.
Is it such a bad idea not to name him just yet? Or is such self-censorship a slippery slope? So far, the old media have one answer to this question, and social media another. But, as shown with the photos of naked Prince Harry in Vegas, there is only so much a tabloid can stand until its instincts take over.
And if one domino falls, every media outlet is likely to follow.
Nick Miller is Fairfax Media’s Europe correspondent.