A lesson in journalism ethics, to name or not to name is the question


Named and shamed: Will Cornick was just 16 was he was arrested for the murder of a Leeds schoolteacher

To name or not to name – that has been the hotly-debated question in so many newsrooms this week, a textbook example of journalism ethics in action, writes James Toney.

The fatal stabbing of 16-year-old Bailey Gwynne in Aberdeen – and the subsequent arrest of a 16-year-old school mate – and the arrest of boys aged 15 and 16 following an alleged hack on TalkTalk, has again raised the question of when juveniles can be named in criminal proceedings.

There is nothing to prevent a suspect under 18 being identified in the UK, it is down to the ethical code of the media outlet concerned, though the law changes when proceedings become active.

The Ofcom code – which covers broadcast media – states juveniles in police investigations should not be named, unless there is specific justification – for example, a child on the run, whose safety is at risk.

The IPSO code for newspapers (though not all publications are signatories) is more vague, and tells us that ‘particular regard should be paid to the potentially vulnerable position of children who witness, or are victims of, crime, adding ‘this should not restrict the right to report legal proceedings’.

Additionally, children under 16 should not be interviewed or photographed on issues concerning their welfare without the permission of the ‘custodial adult or parent’.

However, public interest, for example ‘detecting or exposing crime or serious impropriety’, can override the IPSO provisions.

The age of 16 does not appear to have a great deal of relevance to the newspapers – the alleged 15-year-old hacker from Northern Ireland was named by the Sun, who splashed a page lead picture of him (thin black strip across his face) and his unobscured mother. Confusingly, other newspapers didn’t name him.

After the fatal stabbing of teacher Anne Maguire in Leeds last year, the name of her subsequently convicted killer, Will Cornick, was immediately widely available on social media.

Only the Sun made the decision to name him – he was only 16 – in their edition published the day after the attack, which they had legal cover to do because he had not been charged. Other papers took a more cautious approach.

His anonymity was restored once legal proceedings became active, under section 49 of the Children and Young Persons Act 1933, which also protects the identity of witnesses who are under 18.

But after Cornick’s conviction, a successful application was made by the media to lift reporting restrictions on his name.

However, the judge claimed he gave only ‘a little bit’ of weight to the argument that Cornick had already been widely named on the internet and had been legally identified by the Sun before he was charged.

Ultimately it boils down to an editorial decision. Should the public have the right to know the identity of those accused of the most serious crimes, or should children (and their families) be protected from publicity, no matter what the allegations against them are? The families of the victims will never be protected of course.

However, the situation has got even more confusing in Scotland.

In September, a Scottish law was passed banning identification of anyone under 18 involved in Scottish criminal proceedings. So how did the newspapers cover the stabbing at Cults Academy?

On Wednesday evening, all media outlets (newspapers, broadcasters and agencies) had learned the identities of the victim and his accused attacker, who was in police custody. Names were widely being mentioned on social media, particularly Twitter.

Every title naturally sought legal advice on the issue of identity and the risks of contempt of court. The general view among Scottish newspapers was not to publish the name and picture of the alleged attacker – the same decision applied to their London print editions and websites.

But Glasgow-based Daily Record bucked the trend and decided to publish, running with the identity in its first edition. The story is clearly in the public interest and the alleged attacker had been arrested but not charged, so wasn’t technically involved in active criminal proceedings. The Daily Mirror, the London-based sister title of the Record, also ran the identity and used a front page picture sourced from social media.

Later that night, after a frenzy of lawyer to editor phone calls across Glasgow, the Scottish Daily Mail joined the Record and named the suspect, possibly taking refuge in the safety of numbers and, perhaps, a belief that the Crown would never send two editors to jail.

However, other titles and broadcasters kept the ID out. Contempt of court is no laughing matter.

On Thursday morning the alleged attacker was charged. As he was now actively involved in criminal proceedings, the Scottish papers took the view they cannot be identified.

By Friday morning, Scottish editions have no mention of the accused but some London papers, not covered by Scottish law, have named and pictured the accused. Scottish law is not applicable in England, public interest is so great and identity is unlikely to be an issue in any trial.

The Sun named and pictured the accused on page five of their Friday edition but 24 hours on, after his Friday court appearance, he is referred to on page six of Saturday’s London edition as ‘a youth aged 16′. On MailOnline, he is referred to as ‘a 16-year-old who cannot be named for legal reasons’.

So far, so confusing.

However, all the above underlines that codes of conduct (IPSO/Ofcom) and the law don’t always provide a sanctuary for editorial decision making and why journalists – from NCTJ trainee to national newspaper editor – can never dismiss ethics as a county in the south of England.

Note: 9/11/2015 – One of the boys arrested in TalkTalk probe has now announced they are suing the Daily Telegraph, Daily Mail and the Sun for an alleged breach of privacy. Similar claims were made against Google and Twitter. Read more here.

* James Toney is the managing editor of national press agency News Associates/Sportsbeat