• First published in 2004 as Bartholomew’s Notes on Religion (BNOR).

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“Right to Private Life” Prevents Soca Publicising Criminals

From the Telegraph:

The leaders of the Serious Organised Crime Agency (Soca) have been “deeply frustrated” after lawyers advised them not to name 39 convicted criminals because it would breach the convicts’ right to a family and private life, and could amount to an “unfair” punishment.

…However, lawyers advised that a precedent set by a 2003 test case involving Essex Police meant that the criminals could not be named.

An agency spokeswoman said: “Soca is not entitled to punish and, where there have been no media reports of financial reporting order cases [which require offenders to provide monthly details of their bank accounts], the information cannot properly be said to be in the public domain.

“The information would therefore only become known to the public in this context due to the actions of Soca and we consider that, in unreported cases at least, there would be an interference with Article Eight rights.”

Two cases already reported by the media were allowed to be revealed.

Soca wished to publicise the criminals’ names so that “the public could inform the police if they suspected they were engaged in illicit activity which was not being declared”.

This advice seems to me to be bizarre. How can be it be allowed for “the media” to publicise the identities of criminals but not someone else? Also, Soca has provided a motivation other than “to punish”, while in contrast we all know that some newspapers are motivated by a punitive spirit – just yesterday I blogged on Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre’s claim that

Since time immemorial public shaming has been a vital element in defending the parameters of what are considered acceptable standards of social behaviour…For hundreds of years, the press has played a role in that process.

“Acceptable social behaviour” clearly includes refraining from criminality. And what counts as “the media”? There was a case a few months ago in which a controversial right-wing blogger was found guilty of drink-driving; he was also pilloried by other bloggers, and one even went along to the court to see for himself. The case was also reported in some newspapers; but what if it hadn’t been? Would the bloggers (presuming they found out about it by other means) who mocked and scorned him be regarded as “the media”, or as having breached his right to a family and private life and so liable for hefty damages?

There is already a limitation on reporting criminal convictions in the UK – in 1974 it was legislated that to disclose a “spent conviction” (an old minor conviction that had been removed from someone’s record after a period of time) could be libellous if “malice” could be proven as the motive. I’ve yet to find any actual libel case which has followed from this; this means it remains unclear how “malice” can be proven or disproven, or what exactly “disclosure” means when the media may have put information about a case in the public domain at the time of conviction – perhaps nationally and very prominently – or when the offence was some kind of public protest.

I discussed my own views on the right to privacy vs the right to free speech in a blog posting here. Although I’m not usually much of fan of his, I commended an essay on the subject by the right-libertarian Sean Gabb.

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