15th November 2023
Impress Insights: To name or not to name: When does the public interest outweigh a right to privacy?

David Leigh: To name or not to name: When does the public interest outweigh a right to privacy?

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Pretty well everybody in the world has published the fact that Nicola Sturgeon, former SNP leader, was arrested in Scotland for questioning about her party’s finances. The Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, even made a bad-taste televised jokeat his party conference about her “going down”. This is despite the fact that she denies all wrongdoing and has not been charged with any crime.

On the other hand, for more than a year, virtually no-one published the equally significant fact that Conservative MP Andrew Rosindell is being repeatedly bailed by police after apparently unresolved sexual allegations. This has led to him staying away from Westminster for almost 18 months. He too, denies wrongdoing and has not been charged with any crime. You can recently read mention of this in the Mirror, and the Sunday Times or in some tweets. But still not in the rest of the media.

Likewise, the parliamentary aide Chris Cash was named by the Times in September as an alleged Chinese spy who had been arrested for questioning some months earlier, but never charged. The allegation against him had been bandied about anonymously at Westminster. Cash made a statement via his lawyers saying, “I am completely innocent”, without saying who he was. You can read Cash’s name all over the world in the Taiwan News, for example and the Sydney Morning Herald. But not in the rest of the British media.

And most recently, the TV presenter Dan Wootton was the subject of allegations about past behaviour, which police have now said they are investigating. Wootton went on air speaking of “errors of judgment” but denying any criminality. The media outlet Byline Times broke a story but found no-one following it up.

Instead, Wootton’s lawyers sent round letters. They appear to have intimidated the Guardian, among others, into actually taking down their published article on the subject. Peter Jukes of Byline tweeted that the lawyers had been “threatening people on Twitter with exemplary damages and punitive costs merely for linking to factual public interest articles that detail a Met investigation into their client”.

It is reported that Wootton’s letter says: “The Supreme Court [has] made it clear that any person under criminal investigation has, prior to being charged, a reasonable expectation of privacy” and that publishing Wootton’s name therefore “breached his rights”.

A few outlets have defied these claims, but not many. The true legal position is that such privacy rights do exist nowadays, but they are only a starting point. They can be reduced or entirely swept away by countervailing rights to publish in the public interest.

Media outlets are currently in an absolute mess about whether to name high-profile suspects and people under police investigation. Some do. Some don’t. It’s chilling. This is the fault of the courts, whose well-meaning but confusing rulings have granted such people too many apparent rights of privacy.

Impress has been at the heart of this debate. The vile tabloid hounding of Christopher Jefferies, was one of the founding scandals in 2011 that led to the Leveson inquiry and the subsequent launching of Impress as a press regulator. But we are careful in our Standards Code to defend press freedom where it is justified.

Our Code says: “Publishers should not directly or indirectly identify any people under criminal investigation before being charged, unless in cases where the police have released someone’s name or other identifying information. This is subject to a public interest exception.”

Our associated guidance says the purpose of this clause is to:

a) prevent journalists or publishers from jeopardising police investigations; (b) protect suspects, who are innocent until proven guilty, from potential intrusion into their personal lives and to prevent them being vilified as criminals before they have been convicted of a criminal offence; (c) protect the process of a fair trial by ensuring jurors or magistrates are not influenced by reporting relating to suspects.

The guidance adds: “Publishers may also be at risk of a civil claim for misuse of private information if they identify a suspect.”


“This clause does not apply if the police have decided to release the individual’s name or other identifying information. There are various reasons the police may do this, such as if the person is considered a risk to the public or if they are actively trying to find them. There can also be a public interest justification in revealing an individual’s name if the police have not released it. Such examples may include where the individual is a prominent political figure, if private investors are at risk, or if the story is about police corruption.”

As a journalist, I believe there was a public interest justification for naming, as some did, each of these four individuals mentioned here. I have no knowledge of the underlying facts, and I assume each may be completely innocent. But all voluntarily placed themselves in the political arena and their behaviour significantly affects British public life. Whether naming them was in fact justified in the name of public interest is something that may ultimately be decided by regulators and judges.

I hope that in the future, any Impress member considering whether naming names is in the public interest or not will find real help from our Code.

By David Leigh
Former Guardian Investigations Editor and Impress board member


About David Leigh

David was Anthony Sampson professor of reporting at City, University of London 2006-18. Until he retired from the paper in 2013, he was investigations editor at The Guardian for 13 years. In a journalism career spanning over 40 years he also worked for The Observer, The Times, The Scotsman, Granada TV, Thames TV and the Washington Post. He has won numerous journalism awards including Investigation of the Year 2015 (British Journalism Awards), Lifetime Achievement Award 2013, Global Investigative Journalism Network, and awards at the British Press Awards in 1979, 1996 and 1997. His latest book is Investigative Journalism – a survival guide.

About Impress 

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