Anonymity (Arrested Persons) Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 11:57 am on 4th February 2011.

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Photo of Rob Flello Rob Flello Shadow Minister (Justice) 11:57 am, 4th February 2011

It is always a pleasure to see the Chairman of Ways and Means in the Chair.

I congratulate Anna Soubry on introducing the Bill. I know all too well the pressures involved in choosing a suitable topic, and this Bill is worthy of the opportunity brought by being drawn in the ballot. I appreciate how much thought the hon. Lady has given to the matter. I am sure her heart sank when certain hon. Members entered the Chamber. Mr Chope will forgive me for saying that seeing him walk in is always an interesting indication.

Many Members have mentioned or alluded to the tragic Joanna Yeates case, which happened over Christmas, and the media's dreadful treatment of her landlord. The shameful way in which that man was portrayed in the press-from "weird-looking" to "strange", and with questions raised about his sexuality, his teaching practices and even his hairstyle-should embarrass and shame our media.

The phenomenon is not new. Countless other examples spring immediately to mind-for example, the speculation, which I believe we heard again this morning, about a well-known actor and television presenter back in 2003, which has done untold damage to his career, despite the fact that no charges have ever been brought, or the American press treatment of Richard Jewell as a suspect in the 1996 Olympic park bombing, although in fact he was a hero on the day who saved countless lives through his actions.

As I think everyone listening to the debate will know, on 17 December 2010 Joanna Yeates left her place of work and joined her colleagues in a Bristol pub for a drink. On 20 December, Avon and Somerset police launched their first appeal for information about Joanna's disappearance. It was around this time that the national media, perhaps because of the Christmas period, when there is generally considered to be little for the media to report, began to pay attention to the case. Over the next few days, it was given ever-increasing media attention, and more details emerged about Joanna's final movements.

A key part of the case became a pizza that Joanna was seen buying in Tesco Express, but of which there was no trace in her flat, and the police used the media to ask the public whether they had seen anything relating to this. Joanna's parents made a number of public appeals at this stage, believing that she had either gone missing or perhaps been abducted, and the media carried those appeals and contributed a huge amount to efforts to find Joanna safely. It is important to remember, as we discuss this Bill, that the media have traditionally played a huge role in such situations, and there are countless examples of missing people having been found as a result of information that has been obtained following appeals.

Tragically, on Christmas morning, a body was found in an area of north Somerset that was quickly confirmed to be that of Joanna. Over the next few days, the media concentrated on the reaction of the family and friends, before, on 29 December, the police interviewed Joanna's landlord. He advised that he saw her leaving the flat with two people on the night that she was murdered. But the next day, Avon and Somerset police confirmed that a 65-year-old man had been arrested on suspicion of murder, and it was rapidly reported that this was her landlord.

At this stage the media turned their attention to what can be described only as a detailed character assassination of this man. Papers revelled in the nickname used by students at the college where he formerly taught, and a particular tabloid-I will not mention which one, but I think it will become apparent-ran a story entitled "Weird, posh, lewd, creepy", in which it described him as "weird-looking" and ran quotes from a number of former pupils in which the overriding comment seemed intent on painting a very negative picture of this man. This continued over the following few days as police obtained further time to question the gentleman in question, and more of his former acquaintances came forward with stories about his apparently odd behaviour.

On new year's day, this man was released on bail, at which point the tone of the stories changed. He was no longer weird or strange, with the newspaper in question now preferring to describe him as "wild-haired eccentric", and most attention in the article reporting this being paid to comments from his aunt and former colleagues who supported him, expressing their view that they would never think him capable of such a crime.