Some Notes on Dan Wootton, the Media and the Police

From the Independent in August:

Mail Online has suspended Dan Wootton’s column while allegations he used a pseudonym and offered colleagues money for sexual images are investigated… Wootton has denied any criminal wrongdoing, although he has admitted to “errors of judgment in the past”.

…Contacted by The Independent following the publication of the Byline Times report, Scotland Yard said: “In June 2023, the Metropolitan Police was contacted with regards to allegations of sexual offences committed by a man.

“Officers are assessing information to establish whether any criminal offence has taken place. There is no police investigation at this time.”

I discussed the matter previously here.

While the quote from police is newsworthy, in terms of the presumption of innocence it is superfluous: even in cases where there is a police investigation (unlike as reported above), it is for the courts to determine whether someone is guilty of a crime – an innocent person may become the subject of a police investigation due to a mistaken or malicious complainant, due to police corruption, or simply because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. No-one should infer likelihood of guilt from the mere fact of police interest.

This seems, though, to be a difficult lesson for the media and the public to take on board: one recalls the infamous monstering of Chris Jeffries, or how in late 2018 an innocent couple living near Gatwick found themselves on the front cover of the Mail on Sunday alongside the accusatory headline “Are These the Morons who Ruined Christmas?” after they were arrested on the mistaken suspicion of disrupting the airport with a drone.

Last year, however, the Supreme Court ruled in the case of Bloomberg LP v ZXC that, to quote a legal discussion here, “a person under a criminal investigation has a reasonable expectation of privacy in respect of information relating to that investigation”. This recognises the reality of possible unfair damage to reputation that may arise from being under police investigation. It should be noted, though, that this is simply “a legitimate starting point”: according to the same summary, the burden “rests on the claimant both to set out and to prove the circumstances establishing that there was objectively a reasonable expectation of privacy”, and the judgment “is not authority for the proposition that the press may never publish that an individual is under investigation”.

Of course, although an investigation does not imply guilt, some people may draw inferences about whether there are questions to answer based on police interest or lack thereof. This perhaps should be discouraged, but in some cases a person who is accused of something may themselves make it an issue in appealing for support. Dan Wootton decided it was relevant in his response to the allegations as published on a crowdfunding website:

We must fight back against the current state of social media, where any allegation can be made in an attempt to get someone on the right cancelled and it is impossible to defend yourself. This is even the case where they have claimed that I have engaged in criminal activity when I have never been arrested, interviewed or charged in respect of any of the allegations against me.

Wootton’s crowdfunder was set up with the assistance of Laurence Fox’s Bad Law Project, and it was taken down a few days ago. This was around the same time that Fox criticised Wootton for disloyalty over the Ava Evans controversy, although he now says that they are still in daily contact (5.41 here). As such, the reason for the removal is unexplained.

The news cycle has since moved on from the question of whether Wootton solicited images, but he has he remained in the news for other reasons, such as his recent suspension from GB News and firing by the Daily Mail. There is also an intriguing story in Press Gazette about how “The Guardian, Mirror, various other Reach sites and Newsquest’s The National have all removed stories after a legal warning made by a lawyer acting for Dan Wootton”.