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October 27, 2016

Does the public benefit from being kept in the dark?

I am a passionate believer in free speech and open justice, but I also believe that children involved in the justice system should not be named.  The Times this week was outraged that “Rotherham council helps grooming suspects to win anonymity”, but a careful reading of the piece says this was to avoid a girl, who was allegedly subject to grooming by four men, being identified.  The girl was discovered in a hotel room with one of the men, alongside vodka, cannabis, condoms and female Asian clothing (she was white).  A case against the men collapsed, but the council and the police wanted to protect the girl’s anonymity, and avoid vigilante action against the men.  The judge said “given the strength of feeling in Rotherham…they would be pilloried and/or targeted in their communities”.

This judgement mirrors one made by Judge Peter Jackson who said a mother facing criminal charges involving her children should not be named to protect her children “While there is no evidence of a risk to life and limb, if [mother] is publicly identified, the probable consequences for the younger family members would at best be harmful and at worst disastrous”.

I’m not sure what I think about the Rotherham judgement, partly because there are significant gaps in the coverage (why was the case dropped? do the men pose a risk to others?), but I am concerned that the court system is operating double standards when it comes to children.  Judges are making huge efforts to prevent child victims being identified (as they should), but are allowing some child perpetrators to be named and shamed.  Clearly children who commit serious crime have done immense harm to victims, but it is in all our interests to ensure that they are rehabilitated, and that means protecting their anonymity.

A child who commits a serious crime like murder, attempted murder or rape, already gets punished more harshly here than in other Western Europe countries.  Children who commit murder get imprisoned for life.  If they are identified, their chances of protecting themselves and their families, and of rehabilitation, are diminished.  It is very difficult to move on in your life if every media outlet has painted you as evil.  Unless children do turn away from crime, and rebuild their lives, they may create more victims in the future.  Mary Bell, who as a child killed two other children, was named at her trial, but was given anonymity on her release from prison.  She has gone on to lead a crime free life and to have a daughter.

This issue will hit the headlines again because of a recent case which has been extensively reported about a boyfriend and girlfriend who killed Elizabeth Edwards, a dinner lady and her daughter, when they were both 14.  The story told in the newspapers is horrific – the girl told officers she had “felt like murdering for quite a while” and that the killings had been “a breeze”.  Following the killings the teenage couple apparently took a bath to wash off the blood, had sex and watched four Twilight vampire films.

It is not clear why the teenage couple murdered the Edwards, but it is clear they are already seen by many as evil. The media are keen to reveal as much as they can of this “Bonnie and Clyde” story, and will undoubtedly ask to identify the child perpetrators when they are sentenced in November.  It is a gripping story, but we don’t need to know the children’s names.  There is no genuine public interest in our being able to see the faces of the perpetrators.  It might be interesting, but public interest is about what is best for society.  In the case of children who commit serious crimes, their rehabilitation is the true public interest, not the unmasking of some very disturbed children.