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Baby Peter and anonymity

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Steve Herrmann Steve Herrmann | 17:35 UK time, Tuesday, 11 August 2009

Like other media organisations BBC News has been subject to the reporting restrictions in the Baby Peter case, lifted last night, which stipulated that none of the defendants could be named.

BBC News website imageThese were ordered because the defendants were the subject of another trial, for the rape of a two-year-old girl, which could have been compromised if the jury were prejudiced by information from the earlier case, and also because there were children who were still in the process of being placed with alternative carers.

Now that Steven Barker has been found guilty and sentenced in the rape trial, and all the children are being cared for, the guilty trio's anonymity has ceased and we along with the rest of the media have been able to name them.

This sounds deceptively simple, but when you look at what this means online it is more complicated. A news website like the BBC's will have a huge archive of stories, some of which may contain information which only later becomes the subject of legal restriction.

On this occasion, there were indeed two stories in our own archive relating to the very early stages of the Baby Peter case which, if you searched for them, did give the names of the defendants. We did not republish or link to them from new stories, but on this occasion plenty of other people chose to do so.

There were vigilante-style websites, blogs and individual e-mailers who were determined to make the names public and who were making a point of linking to our archived stories.

We removed the stories from our archive even though in practice the details were easy to find, and the information had already been reproduced and cached elsewhere on the internet. Now that the restrictions have been lifted we've reinstated the stories in the archive. Not, incidentally, a very practical or easy way of doing things if we had to do it very often.

But it has raised again a wider question as to how useful or effective such restrictions can be, given the ease with which the web allows information to be shared, stored and duplicated on other sites, blogs or in search engine caches.

My colleague Ceri Thomas, on another occasion, summed up well the challenges posed by the internet to the Contempt of Court Act. This case has provided another illustration of those issues, and another example of how seeking to restrict access to information may not necessarily be the most effective approach.

The judge in the second trial, for the rape of the two-year-old child, recognising the risk that it could be compromised by the jury seeing potentially prejudicial information circulating online, eventually decided that it could go ahead anyway. The members of the jury were simply given instructions not to do any research on the internet. In other words, the onus was placed on them, as trusted participants in the judicial process, to focus only on the evidence before them in court.

Steve Herrmann is editor of the BBC News website.

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    "But it has raised again a wider question as to how useful or effective such [court imposed reporting] restrictions can be, given the ease with which the web allows information to be shared, stored and duplicated on other sites, blogs or in search engine caches."

    That is the real issue here, I also suspect that there is still even more information out in cyberspace (and beyond the reach of the UK's to the Contempt of Court Act) that the media still can't report, I suspect that the only way in which the judiciary will get to grips with the issues that arise is by taking a zero tolerance to members of juries doing their own research and vigilantes acting on such information - two wrongs do not and nor should it make a right.

  • Comment number 2.

    I think you have acted entirely correctly here: treading the line between legal requirements and informing the public.

    One argument here ....

    Does the fact that the main stream media maintained the secrecy still have value in that it kept the information from the great majority of people?

    At the time of jury selection, this would mean that it would still be easy to find a jury of 12 people who did not know that the defendant in front of them was the person from the baby P case.

    What if the names had been openly published? Could we end up with a situation where lawyers for a person like this could argue no fair trial was possible? Could cases be dropped or could convictions be overturned at appeal?

    (I have almost no limits about what the penalty should be for this sort of thing - but that only makes it all the more important that we get the right person. They must have a fair trial.)

    Despite publication on the internet for those who seek it out, I can still see this role for restraint by the mainstream media.

  • Comment number 3.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 4.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 5.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 6.

    Its an interesting insight into what must be a bit of a daily legal mine field, it seems like another instance in developing technologies where the law is several steps behind the every day reality.

    As to the question of anonymity i suspect a large part of the motivation in naming the couple was down to newspaper sales rather than any sense of public duty. Sickening though it is, parts of the media have been using this horrific tradgedy to boost sales since details became public.

    In their frenzy of accusations and self righteousness they seem to have deliberately mislead the pubic about the nature of the sentences handed down, specifically that they are indeterminate and in reality it is extreemely unlikely that either of them will ever be released.

    Personally i would have no problem with them being named if i thought elements of the public could be trusted not to take some kind of 'revenge'. Either you agree to participate in the state or you don't. Any attempt at vigilante justice seriously undermines the social contract we all tacitly live under.

  • Comment number 7.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 8.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 9.

    What would really be nice is to give this case a rest - we must know everything we need to know by now and the coverage is getting excessive, even prurient.

  • Comment number 10.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 11.

    Can you explain why the names of these horrible people was the top story on BBC News today? The headline added nothing new to the story except what their names were. Why is that news vitally important news? Why is that more important than your other headlines, like the goings on in Burma, the Jewelery heist etc?

    Now that you've told us their names, what will happen is if or when they're released, some people may understandably let their emotions affect them, and perform some sort of "witch-hunt/vigilante justice" on them.

    So to stop that, taxpayer money will have to be paid out to change their identities etc. Not to mention that it will cost £1m per year to protect them in prison from attacks:

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/london/8196143.stm

    I could understand if today's story added something new that was relevant to the case, such as new facts that had emerged, and you had revealed their names during the reporting of THAT story, but that's not what happened. You just revealed their names, for no reason other than to remind people of the story, let them know their names, and encourage vigilante justice. What possible public interest was there in revealing their names, especially as the main headline?

    Thanks BBC and the rest of the MSM, you've done your country proud...

  • Comment number 12.

    In other words, the onus was placed on them, as trusted participants in the judicial process, to focus only on the evidence before them in court.

    -----------

    Which is the case anyway. Jurers are not supposed to go digging for their own information on the case, they are supposed to disregard any personal feelings and/or prejudices and simply analyse the information given to them in a courtroom.

  • Comment number 13.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 14.

    To be honest, I did not feel justice had been done until I actually looked at the faces of the murderers.


    Irrational, but there you are.

  • Comment number 15.

    Steve:

    I am not from the United Kingdom, so, I have a *out-of-bounds* question for you and/or someone else...It was mentioned in the posting that was submitted by you!!!!

    Regarding the naming of the "accused" who are now convicted of Baby Peter killing .....

    What is the reason for not naming them earlier on????

    =Dennis Junior=

  • Comment number 16.

    "So to stop that, taxpayer money will have to be paid out to change their identities etc. Not to mention that it will cost £1m per year to protect them in prison from attacks:"

    £1 million? Where DO they get these fanciful figures from? How on earth do you arrive at £1M for keeping someone in solitary for a year? Purleeeze.
    Even if you had 5 prison officers looking after each, if that wage bill came to £250,000 (let me know when there's a vacancy if so), then we're saying that their heat, light, television, games consoles and food comes to £750,000. DO LEAVE OFF.

  • Comment number 17.

    "£1 million? Where DO they get these fanciful figures from?"

    Why don't you read the BBC article I linked to and find out?

  • Comment number 18.

    15. At 4:49pm on 12 Aug 2009, Dennis_Junior wrote:
    "...What is the reason for not naming them earlier on????..."

    Among other reasons, Dennis, it's a matter of law. Under UK law you are innocent until proven guilty. For lesser cases, the media may name the accused, so long as they use words like 'apparently' or 'it was reported' so as not to directly apportion blame - that is the duty of the court. In the case here, one of the accused had also been arrested on a rape charge, being tried separately to the Baby Peter case.

    If his name was linked between the two cases, it would also expose all the other defendents in those cases, and so prejudicing the two trials. Just because you are guilty of one crime, does not mean you are guilty of all crimes. In this case, however, he was, but using the 'innocent until proven guilty' rules, we have to protect the innocent (assumed) until they are known to be guilty.

    Does that make sense?

  • Comment number 19.

    Thanks for your comments. Jon112uk: I think you have a point about the case for restraint in the mainstream media – there is indeed a balance to be struck. Deamon138: the rationale for releasing the names was for the judicial authorities to determine. Once they had decided to release them, it would be hard to imagine them going unreported given the wide interest in the case – surely people will want the media to tell them if the information is publicly available. hackerjack – yes, true - so it is a question of reinforcing that principle in the context of online information. Dennis Junior: this article outlines the reasons they were kept secret; SHLA2UK explains it well above and you may also be interested in this week's edition of The Media Show in which my colleague Fran Unsworth discusses these issues.

  • Comment number 20.

    This is a media story when Victoria Clumbia dies the killers were shown right away and there is no discussion about when they will get their freedom but we are told about the background of this woman and not why the police and Social Services failed the child. He was not of real interest to them they knew at sometime this child would die. So the mother was without emotional bonding to her children she had three before, what does that say about her and her relationship with psychopaths, she was just like what she came from, and not all abused children become abusers either if it is not in you to have empathy for others you can not give it to others even if its blood. But it is the failure of others that needs to be questioned after all that is why they are paid for and well paid. As for these getting out well will they be spayed like you do dogs and cats so that they can not pass on their genes as for not allowing others to know about them and money spent on keeping them safe no one kept that child safe. No they should stay in for life. the powers that be knew all about this child but did nothing, who are the criminals really.

  • Comment number 21.

    Steve, you say, "surely people will want the media to tell them if the information is publicly available".

    But the question is WHY will people want the media to tell them their names are publicly available? Most of us haven't gained anything from being told their names. I mean compare the following two stories: "small child was violently abused horrendously" (essentially the original story), and "these are the names of the perpetrators from several months ago" (essentially what the latest "story" was). The only people who have gained anything from this latest "story" are people who "may understandably let their emotions affect them, and perform some sort of "witch-hunt/vigilante justice" on them" as I said above. So I don't think this "story" was serving anyone but a small sub-section of the public

  • Comment number 22.

    #21. At 6:45pm on 13 Aug 2009, deamon138 wrote:

    "But the question is WHY will people want the media to tell them their names are publicly available? Most of us haven't gained anything from being told their names."

    Good post, the media/press is (and has been for many years) generally self serving, 'news' doesn't actually come into the equation, it's what will maximise sales or viewers, hence why we see (from years ago) headlines about someone called Freddie eating a Hamster or (more recently) wall to wall 24hr coverage of a pop stars death simply because the other major media broadcasters also had wall to wall 24hr coverage. Most people would not have missed this 'naming and shaming' story had the media not run with it, I certainly wouldn't have sort out the information and would probably still be in blissful ignorance had the BBC not run the 'story' as the main news story on radio Four's Midnight News (eclipsing all other news) and then on all other BBC media on or the day after the reporting restrictions lapsed and I'm sure that I'm not alone. Had Steve not blogged about this subject I would not have sort out a message board or blog to make comment either...

    As the information was almost certainly already out in cyberspace anyway, those who really wanted to know the details could before, and probably still can, find out what the media and press have not/can not report - I suspect - so does actually matter if the media had run with this 'new' information or not, I would say no and what is more, on balance, the media should not have run the story as it's done nothing but fuel the 'debate' about retribution, just as identifying the Jamie Bulger killers did.

    By the way, my comment @ #5 was removed because it turns out to have been in reply to a previous off topic comment.

  • Comment number 23.

    20. At 6:26pm on 13 Aug 2009, DeniseCullum222 wrote:
    "...they should stay in for life. the powers that be knew all about this child but did nothing, who are the criminals really..."

    Tracey Connelly, Steven Barker, Jason Owen

    Simples!

  • Comment number 24.

    #23, "SHLA2UK", Thanks for re-enforcing the closing remarks found in the second paragraph of my comment @ #22...

  • Comment number 25.

    # 18: Thanks, and, yes...I figure out the situation, since in the United States (where I am from) most of the time...Media mostly releases the names of the accused when they are charged with criminal offenses (e.g.) Felonies in the U.S.

    =Dennis Junior=

  • Comment number 26.

    Offenses such as this one are horrible - I personally don't believe these offenders deserve to come back to the society ever.

    I don't understand why openly publishing the names are not ok. However, I guess I am fine with it.

    Anyway, great way of BBC putting up the news.

    -- Fred
    [Unsuitable/Broken URL removed by Moderator]

  • Comment number 27.

    I spent a lot of time 'on the Internet' as well as reading papers and so on. I never found out their names, even though they might be 'on the Internet', just as I don't find a huge number of other websites dedicated to all sorts of things I don't express an interest in.

    I'd say it has a use, the jury wouldn't have found out any information unless they actively went looking for it (which they were told not to).

    I disagree with censorship, but I can see there is some value here. Perhaps it's a bit extreme to censor the entire media to protect 12(?) people in a jury...

  • Comment number 28.

    Thanks Steve Herrmann for answering my questions...


    =Dennis Junior=

  • Comment number 29.

    Part of the problem is with the legal process itself. It is so complex, closeted, and ridiculously technical at times that you feel it only exists to serve itself, and not to protect the public. Dangerous criminals can be let off because a procedure was not followed, or because a defending lawyer played a good act in front of the jury, or verbally undermined a crucial witness.

    Times change. Media change. Information and access to it changes. The legal system is still stuck in some 17th century rut. You cannot stop people from accessing data, or coming across information that might be prejudicial. Most of the newspapers, TV and many internet forums are prejudicial in some way. They pander to the feelings of whichever market they're aimed at. That's not going to change any time soon. Legal proceedings need to take account of this, not try to block it out. But why would they? The legal system waxes fat on its own complexities. The longer and more drawn out the legal process, the greater the ambiguity, the more chance of a challenge - the more money these worthies stand to make. They have lost sight of their raison d'etre, which is surely to protect the law-abiding community from criminals. No, they'd rather sit in their ivory towers raking in the money debating pointless technicalities whilst Rome burns.

  • Comment number 30.

    I am outraged by this, how dare they appeal after they have taken an innocent life, how dare they! I think the appeal should be reversed and they should get triple sentances for what they have done

    How much money are we (the public) going to contribute via taxes in new identities and new homes when they are released?

    This country has no justice at all, we are too worrried about teenagers smoking a bit of canabis rather than the real criminals out there, which is why these sickos didnt get caught in the 1st place

    We need some proper enforcement in this country

    If this was another country, they would be on there way to hell now, even more so it probably wouldnt have happened in the 1st place in another country

  • Comment number 31.

    I think it's plain and simple if you have a story just as Peter's. By all means tell the public of yet another horror but withold all names until guilty has been sentenced. Let them serve their time in prison & in my book prison means just that loss of liberty & treat them as prisoners ... we may have a drop in crime rates, you never know. Once they have been sentenced let names & pictures be released to the public & no name change or protection. The crimes they did they should hang their heads in shame for the rest of their lives. Children are our future & should be protected nurtured and loved at all costs. These people have no rights to have wonderful lives they took anothers...

  • Comment number 32.

    I as I am sure many others also received that text months ago naming these monsters inviting me to forward it on to all my contacts. I replied with something along the lines of I will not take part in this tabloid lead witch hunt vigilante agenda. As for 'lessons will be learned' and the knee jerk new advice to social services from Ed Balls, nothing seems to have happened. I know of a woman who has stopped having the health visitor after she was told she was not doing the best for her 2 year old little boy, who often appears like Baby Peter; covered in food stains, sun burnt, looks generally dishevelled and often has a cut bruise or burn on him. Surely all these features added together must tick enough boxes for a surprise visit from Social Services child protection unit? But no nothing has happened to her apart from benefits continue to be paid. Maybe it is time that child benefit was only paid if health visits were maintained. Another aspect of the Baby Peter case which has not been raised is race. After Victoria Climbie's case I think Social Services were so desperate to not be accused of failing another black child for fear of the institutionalised racism label being used. But there are other institutionalised prejudices still rife in local authorities when it comes to white trash gutter class. I know middle class professionals who have replaced race based prejudices with socio-economic prejudices, they use ethnic 'freinds' to show how diverse and pro multicultural they are but they choose to live as far away from the local sink estate as their career salary will buy them, so how on earth can they know the people they are meant to be protecting? As for those responsible for this crime I don't expect long sentences to be passed in this soft on crime society but I would like sterilisation to be mandatory for all involved in cases like this to prevent them having any more children forget human rights what about the rights of the preconceived child?

 

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