Anonymity in rape cases – a press freedom not worth fighting for?

The freedom to report rape cases, it was argued in one broadsheet recently, is one press freedom that’s not worth defending. The call for the restoration of anonymity to protect those accused of rape was back in the news last week, as the Home Office proposed that police officers face disciplinary action if they leak the names of men accused of rape and other sex crimes to the media before they are charged.
It was an effort to head off an attempt by MPs to push through a statutory ban on naming defendants in rape and other serious sexual cases. Back in June, peers backed an amendment by former Law Lord Lord Ackner to the Sexual Offences Bill that would restore anonymity to protect those accused of rape.
Of course, we’ve been here before, as lawyers with memories will recollect. Anonymity for defendants was introduced by the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Act 1976, only to be scrapped 12 years later. So what has changed since then?
Nothing, except for a succession of lurid tabloid exposés subjecting well-known names to trial by media only for the ensuing police investigations or prosecutions to come to nought – from the ordeal suffered by Neil and Christine Hamilton, whose own accuser Nadine Milroy-Sloane was sent down for three years for obstructing justice, to the recent debacle of the John Leslie investigation.
The ‘Ackner’ amendment proposed that the defendant in rape and other sexual offence cases should “enjoy the same right to anonymity as is enjoyed by the complainant”. But what would that have meant in practice? As the Newspaper Society has pointed out, anyone who was accused, acquitted or convicted of a sexual offence would have been entitled to life-long anonymity and so, for example, it would have been an offence to publish anything that might have identified even a convicted rapist. This represents a huge act of censorship.
But isn’t the pro-anonymity lobby missing the point? For a start, the Contempt of Court regime is there to police the press’s worse excesses. But surely the real problem is that it takes 18 months to get a case to court in the first place. It would be a lot fairer for all parties concerned if the accused came before the court within six months.