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Naming Baby P is not about giving into a Facebook campaign

November 18th, 2008Posted by in Press freedom and ethics

Naming Baby P and his mother is not about giving into a hysterical Facebook campaign group; this is about confronting the reality of the online age.

I can’t link to it here, because it would be breaching reporting restrictions, but I know Baby P’s name, the baby’s mother’s name and the name of her partner.

So does anyone with even a little bit of Google cache savvy about them: it’s on a BBC report from 2007. Google cache preserves a page even if, as the BBC has done, original articles have been removed.

As the Independent reported, Facebook groups have published the details, despite the court order not to.

My argument is not about revealing the names for justice, it is about having a law which can actually be enforced.

If it had been reported abroad, on non-UK websites, they would be not be held accountable under the UK Contempt of Court legislation. Court orders, such as the one in this case protecting the names of the defendants, are simply not feasible in the web age.

I believe that whatever ensures fair trials without prejudice, protects the innocent people involved in the case (other people connected or in the family, for example) is necessary, and if keeping the names secret does that, then that should be done: I certainly won’t be joining any Facebook group to force their disclosure.

But it should be done in such a way where they really are secret, which has not happened in this case:

Jason Owen’s name is known; the mother’s name has also been previously published and is reachable with a quick search; the baby’s photograph is in the press.

One of the Facebook groups has a description reading: ‘For sum [sic] reason the press have seen it fit not to reveal the sick people who killed this poor helpless child.’

The press has not chosen to keep quiet (they certainly would print the names if they could); they are bound by law not to. But what happens when the wider community who have not been taught about reporting restrictions and contempt of court choose to publish, using blogs and social network sites?

I imagine that most people in that community, and wider geography, knows who the family are. Last night’s BBC Panorama showed that the research team were able to access things the mother wrote on social networking sites.

Yet the names cannot be disclosed by the British press without contravening the Contempt of Court Act. This means that disclosures are made through people who aren’t necessarily so concerned about, or even think about, media ethics or face any kind of editorial process.

As I reported in September, Bob Satchwell from the Society of Editors believes the legislation is out of date and redundant, as do many others.

Orders, such as those under section 11 of the Contempt of Court Act 1981, for example, allow a court to ban publication of specific information, in addition to statutory reporting restrictions. But how on earth to enforce this in an online world?

This is starkly proven in the case of Baby P.

It’s time to readdress our laws, as Satchwell has urged the Attorney General, and make trials really fair.

Postscript: I’ve just found Martin Belam’s blog post, which makes a similar point, and also focuses on the ‘sheer scale of useage of the internet’ in the UK as compared to 2000 when Victoria Climbié case was reported, for example.

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  • stuart

    I am not unhappy with the present postion in publication in both the Baby P & BNP Membership names.

    If you really want to know it is not too difficult to find out.

    If you want to publish it then you can expect it to be taken down. Most news & community sites have voluntarily done this without even been asked.

    The latter is important in frustrating vigilante action. Free publication can only do harm in this case. It is a fudge and one that should be welcomed. The internet has given us the protection that much can no longer be kept secret. Making them a bit difficult to find is a good price to pay to stop this good advance coming at too great a cost by irresponsible exploitation.

  • this whole awful story has seemed to be in favour of the murderers and not the victim. if this had been done to an adult the\y would have been accused of murder

  • peterking

    The only valid reason for not identifying them is if it impeded another prosecution case. If their are other children involved so what if i murdered an adult and was convicted then my son would know because it would be in the media.

    Otherwise the people have an absolute right to know and the courts are acting in contempt of the people. The public have a total right to know.

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  • Bernadette

    Are YOU a member of the public Judith? Or are you in an exalted position, looking down on the ‘masses’ with curled lip? That comment you made “members of the public are uneducated about the laws and ethics of journalism”…. so, they will be kept in the dark? Think about what you are saying, it sounds to me like the old-fashioned attitude of ignorent men who thought women belonged in the kitchen, barefoot and pregnant!

  • Bernadette, my point is, in fact, the opposite: everyone has publishing power so distinctions between journalists and public are less and less relevant.

    My argument is that we should have systems in place for educating people who haven’t read, or been trained in media law (which journalists should have been), so they can see where they would be in breach of Contempt of Court legislation.

    The quote you attribute to me was from someone else’s blog, and not my own words.

    Note: we had to delete your second comment – the details it contained would have been in Contempt of Court under UK law.

  • It’s true that “the masses” won’t necessarily be aware of media law. However, in my mind the issue in this case is more that the courts are still operating on the basis of the jurors only learning about the case during the trial.

    That situation is probably viable in cases along the lines of “Joe is accused of pinching an apple” but, these days, not really a runner in high profile cases and particularly those where there’d be an international interest. Certainly in the past one could have looked up details in the newspapers held in one’s local library which gets an exemption from the contempt of court. Yet, apparently, looking up the very same newspaper archive online would mean that the paper would be in contempt. That’s even before you consider the various places that information is cached these days.

    For example, our own http://www.CulturedViews.com had (now deleted) information about the case. Even though we have deleted it’s still available to the world courtesy of google et al caching.

    For that matter, surely a Sky+ box could be in contempt if one had recorded some news programmes from a while back on the case? After all, one can attach a gadget to it which allows it to broadcast throughout the home ie it has a publishing capability.

    Perhaps the best approach would be to only publish one’s blog in America where at least there’d be a first amendment protection (which, apparently, provided our site with some protection as the registrar refused to take it down).

  • Just how much authority does the law have over the internet – and to what extent does British law (just as example) have the right to prohibit publication of names, etc, on ‘internation airspace’ online…?

    Fair enough, we now know why the personal details of the mother and one of the males were withheld – because back in November the case involving the sister of baby Peter was being organised and it was necessary to have a jury who knew nothing about the mother and boyfriend or details about ‘Baby P’ at the time. It was a new trial regarding different charges.

    By this stage the horses had bolted regarding the online vigilanties; with no internet there would have been no problem withholding details – but I think applying the old media targeted reporting restrictions rules to the internet was madness. Two completely different mediums; one can be controlled the other – impossible…

    Laws in this regard need to be adapted to take the online world into account – if you are a professional hack then you would have received notice of reporting restrictions, online bloggers etc get no such notice and assume such rules do not apply to them.

    I am sure though that if it was made known – in some way – that the anonymity thing was in place in November because a new trial involved a sibling then maybe it would have been respected. The online community simply saw it as protecting the criminals in this case.

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