Over the past year, we’ve seen countless “celebrities” arrested , suspected of the most horrific crimes. Many have subsequently been charged, some have pleaded guilty, and others have protested their innocence. Some, however, have been arrested, publicly shamed and humiliated, had their reputations dragged through the mud, only to discover that the police and the Crown Prosecutions Service have decided not to charge them with a crime.
The howling headlines in recent months have often concerned alleged events dating back years, even decades. This creates obvious difficulties for prosecution, with evidence uncertain, detail fading and memories perhaps less certain than they were. But for the subject of the allegations, the passing years create similar problems in terms of rebuttal. How do you prove a negative, especially after so many years? What evidence can there be to prove your innocence?
When these arrests have led to convictions or confessions, they have provided victims with a long-overdue sense of closure and of justice being done, but when they are fruitless, they can lead to appalling suffering and humiliation for the wrongly accused.
Incidences of arrest without charge have been on the rise , particularly in high-profile cases. There seems to be a clear and growing trend of arresting individuals, questioning them and then releasing them on bail. In many cases, arrest for questioning appears to be used as a substitute for interviewing subjects under caution, or having individuals voluntarily “help police with their enquiries”. It has been suggested that this is because arresting a suspect enables police to search the suspect’s home and property without having to apply for a search warrant. So the arrest becomes a fishing licence. Whether that is the reason or not, it’s certainly true that the trend has moved sharply towards the “Arrest First, Talk Later” school of investigation.
As a matter of policy, police are not meant announce the names of those people they have arrested. If this rule were properly adhered to, arrest would not need to be considered so destructive . A traumatic episode? Certainly. A reputational issue? Absolutely. But not a career-ending crisis.
In reality, though, the names of high-profile people who have been arrested are routinely leaked to the media. The finger tends to be pointed at the police, but celebrities are often surrounded by a gossiping gaggle, all-too- ready to pick up the phone to a friendly reporter. Indeed, the media has become so accustomed to knowing the names and details of high-profile suspects that they now complain when the police follow their own rules. (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2321039/Jimmy-Tarbuck-police-row-concealing-comedians-arrest-weeks.html)
It is this pattern of revealing the names of arrested suspects to the press that poses the most serious reputational problems for those who have been arrested, especially when the crime in question is particularly abhorrent in the public eye.
Being arrested does not, of course, mean that one is guilty of a crime. Yet the press and the public are never keen to emphasise this. Arrest and guilt are conflated in the public mind, with the press leading the charge. The attitude towards those arrested is that “there’s no smoke without fire.”
Social media worsens this problem. Even if the police do not reveal the arrested person’s name, Twitter often figures it out. Once the name is out in the public domain, social media can allow libellous gossip and innuendo to spread like wildfire. “Innocent until proven guilty” is trampled under the feet of the mob, and the laws of slander and libel are drowned out by the din. The McAlpine scandal may have made some think twice, but the reaction to at least one recent celebrity arrest has demonstrated that the appetite for crass, poisonous and uninformed gossip is still a social media characteristic.
There are, however, ways for arrested individuals to fight back and protect their reputation, however much the deck is stacked against them. Chelgate has several pieces of advice it would give to almost all clients who have been arrested for a crime they did not commit.
First and foremost, a swift, strong denial is absolutely essential. One needs only to look at the example of Andrew Mitchell’s non-denial of the specific allegations made against him to see the risks of equivocating and delaying. If you are innocent, say so in the clearest, boldest terms possible. Leave no room for speculation.
Secondly, take control of the information flow. Strike first. Become the primary source of information about your own story. If you are a high profile celebrity, you must assume that the media will pick up the story. But if you do what many do, skulking quietly, hoping you might just escape attention, you will be the loser. When the media break the story, there’s no reason for them to mitigate or qualify; in fact, quite the opposite. The worse the story sounds, the more attention it will command, and for many journalists, that’s the primary consideration.
So be the first to put the facts in the public domain. Make sure these facts are your facts, structured and presented in the way you’d want , and they are more likely to become the established media narrative. Never let social media or gossip columnists dominate the discourse.
Thirdly, we advise our clients to make full use of the law to defend their reputations. In fact, in the majority our reputation crisis assignments, we work in very close partnership with the legal team. Lord McAlpine did us all a favour by turning his abhorrent treatment at the hands of social media into an opportunity to strike a blow for privacy. Clients now have the confidence that they can hold poisonous, vicious gossipmongers to account for the libel they commit, no matter what medium they use. This is already having a noticeable effect on the way social media users have reacted to high-profile arrests, and further legal action will only strengthen this.
It is disappointing, but that we cannot trust the police always to follow their own rules and keep the names of arrested individuals confidential. More must be done to ensure they comply with these guidelines, and that legal action to secure this is certainly not out of the question. Likewise, police and prosecutors should have a stronger obligation to publicly exonerate individuals they arrest but do not subsequently charge.
In the meantime, however, arrest without charge, trial or verdict seems to be becoming an established police procedure. And people whose reputations have taken decades to build now find those reputations reduced to ruins, almost overnight, with little or no opportunity to clear their names through legal process. Where that happens, the ability and skill to take on and challenge the poison in the Court of Public Opinion becomes a matter of life and death for the individual’s reputation. For the wrongly accused, that’s a battle that needs to be won.
Terence Fane-Saunders and John Ringer