Imagine a world where, if a teacher fled to, say France, with one of his pupils, it wouldn’t be a given that we could name him, show his picture and identify the school where he taught. A world where we’d only be able to report all those details if we could convince a magistrate it was in the public interest to do so. A world where all these obstacles were put in place by a trained journalist.
As of next week, welcome to the UK, 2012. And lets all thanks Michael Gove, the man who began his career at the Aberdeen Press and Journal and who, as education secretary, now has the dubious honour of being the journalist who made it harder for reporters to report the facts.
The Newspaper Society weekly newsletter reports this week that section 13 of the Education Act 2011 comes into force on Monday. In a nutshell, it bans the media from naming or doing anything to identify a teacher who is the subject of an allegation made by, or on behalf of, a pupil at the same school they teach at.
The restrictions can be lifted if a magistrate sees fit to do so, and the restrictions cease to apply once – broadly – charges have been brought or if details are published as the result of an investigation by the secretary of state for education (that would be Mr Gove then!) The person subject to the allegations can also waive their right to remain anonymous if they want.
Maybe the section is rooted in honourable intentions – there’s no doubt there have been many teachers who have been subjects to malicious allegations by teenagers. But banning any form of communication which risks identifying the person accused of an allegation is the wrong way to solve it. Expelling pupils who make the allegations would be a much better way to go.
As Bob Satchwell, who runs the Society of Editors, said today on Hold the Front Page, it’s not as though we’re short of laws when it comes to restrictions on reporting allegations:
“Although we acknowledge teachers’ fears about false accusations, the most important issue is surely to protect children. Malicious allegations by pupils are extremely rare and alongside this the laws of libel, contempt and confidence already restrict newspapers from repeating and publishing unsubstantiated accusations.”
The national press have been full of stories about Megan Stammers this week, the 15-year-old who has gone abroad with her 30-year-old teacher Jeremy Forrest. The European Arrest Warrant and request for help to European police forces are based on an allegation of child abduction – and as he’s a teacher, and she’s from his school, in theory, he’d be covered by this new legislation.
As media law expert David Banks, talking with me on Twitter about this today, said:
Of course, you’d hope in this case the police would rush to the magistrates court to support the media in getting the restrictions lifted. But what if the local education authority had a preference to try and keep the case under wraps at first (and I’m not saying they would in this case), and opposed the request to lift restrictions? Look at recent events in Rochdale, where the council and the police had been found to have fallen short in their duty of care to teenagers who were being abused, where social workers decided under-aged girls were able to decide whether they should have sex. Social workers decided they’d made a lifestyle choice.
Take that scenario and put it in the context of a school. If the pupil or parent wasn’t happy with the outcome of an investigation, they no longer have the right to take it to a Press which can report it. In fact, they couldn’t talk about it at all, because the Act pretty much bans the discussion of any allegation:
“publication” includes any speech, writing, relevant programme or other communication in whatever form, which is addressed to the public at large or any section of the public (and for this purpose, every relevant programme shall be taken to be so addressed)
That’s not a ban on the media reporting it, that’s a gag on everyone. How does a headteacher communicate with parents that an allegation of assault is being investigated? How does a parent talk to other parents at the school gate if they have complained about a member of staff? In theory, it bans social media chatter too. In other words, a black curtain of silence is wrapped around a school as soon as an allegation is made.
Only, in reality, that won’t happen at all. Schools, like all communities, will gossip. Everyone at the school will know the allegations, and probably know over-egged versions of them too. Until Monday, the media can play a part in keeping those rumours in check – to a degree – while headteachers can confidently write to parents explaining what’s going on. That changes on Monday.
All thanks to a journalist.