A campaign is at large to secure statutory anonymity for all young people under 18 who are accused of crime. Lawyers, criminologists, judges, sociologists, academics, and politicians are in on it. It is a well-meaning plot, done with the best of intentions.
But it would be a terrible mistake. The media is being made the scapegoat, portrayed as the lightning conductors for the stigmatisation of young offenders. They are propagandised as the bogeymen “destroying people’s lives” and annihilating rehabilitation.
The campaign is widened to include the internet as the Wild West – an unregulated No Man’s Land where the residue of past chronicling is on the end of perpetual search engine profiling to jeopardise future employment and reputation. The right to be forgotten has been enshrined as the new cultural shibboleth by the EU Court of Justice.
No justice can be achieved or guaranteed by using the law to stifle the flow of information. It is the easiest legal reform to achieve. It does not cost anything. It plays to the self-loathing of Guardianista journalism culture and the extreme prejudice of the tabloid stereotype of the intrusive journalistic vulture.
But gagging the messenger and silencing the storyteller are retrograde steps. Burning truth in the incinerator of 21st-century digital deletion will be no better than George Orwell’s Winston Smith dropping newspaper cuttings down the memory wormhole. Justice withers and diminishes where it cannot be seen and spoken about.
Much has been made about the fact that one national newspaper named a 15-year-old murder suspect before his first court appearance. It was accused of “exploiting a loophole”. But the rest of media did not and showed discretion in covering youths accused of crimes against their teachers; mercifully not a common occurrence.
It is very rare for children to commit serious crimes such as rape, murder and terrorism. When they do, their identification is also about giving dignity to their victims and families. It is their grave misfortune to be the subject of such a rare tragedy as the homicidal child.
The media is not responsible for youth crime or the problems of Britain’s youth justice system. The idea of young offending is a social construction – the age of criminal responsibility was as low as seven until 1933. In Belgium everyone is thought to be incapable of crime until they are 18. In Spain children who commit crimes are shielded from the adult courts in a complex system of bespoke treatment, educational and community measures. Detention is a last resort.
The UK youth justice system struggles with political interference, as children are the perennial social guinea pigs. When they do wrong, adults believe they can change them for the better. Since the 19th century, policies have oscillated between the various doctrines, from the punitive (“children can be evil”), to the welfarist (“children can be good”) and the developmental (“let’s keep it secret and ‘treat’ it”).
The issue of youth anonymity was the lynchpin of the High Court ruling “JC and RT v Central Criminal Court” on April 8 this year. Should childhood anonymity for young people accused of crime in the adult courts continue after they are 18? Sir Brian Leveson said the statute is clear. It cannot. But he also said that parliament needs to think about youth witnesses and victims who, unlike adults, do not get lifetime anonymity when vulnerable.
The media point of view in this debate is poorly represented. There is the usual lip-service reference to “open justice”, without any analysis of the risks of becoming more of a closed rather than open society. Turning everybody under the age of 18 into anonymised ciphers with pixellated faces strips them of their humanity and makes it easier to stop regarding them as complex individuals with developing responsibilities and duties as well as being entitled to a duty of care from their families, guardians and the social or state institutions that educate and interact with them.
Anonymising human beings in terms of the public record is philosophically corrupting. It transforms individuals into non-persons. The process fuses the imagining of the disappearance of human personality into a manifestation of the reality.
The purpose of professional journalism in a democratic society is to communicate as much accurate information as possible while being ethical and legal. The system already adequately protects the young generation of offenders who mostly grow out of crime by their early 20s. In England and Wales, most child miscreants are being diverted from youth and adult courts to youth offending teams and panels; similar to the situation in Scotland.
Too much law and yet more legal reporting restrictions can achieve the opposite of what is intended. A judiciary that is unnecessarily self-censoring undermines its own credibility and authority when these restrictions are unworkable, ineffective and redundant in the 21st-century age of high-speed internet and social media.
The vast majority of professional publishers go out of their way to consider the welfare and future rehabilitation of young people when involved in crime. They follow the letter as well as the spirit of regulation. This is because, to adapt a John Donne line, no journalist is an island. They were young once and they have children too. In fact there is much more compassion in the soul of journalism than people, academics included, realise.