A Conservative MP was arrested on Friday on suspicion of rape. At the time of publication, he has not been named publicly. Why?
Why hasn’t Parliament named the MP?
It used to be that if an MP was arrested, the Commons Speaker would have to tell the House – either in an oral statement or by “laying” a letter in the House of Commons Library. This meant the arrested member’s identity quickly became public knowledge.
But in 2016, the rules changed at the recommendation of the House of Commons Standards Committee. The Speaker is no longer obliged to tell the House of a member’s arrest, and can only do so if the MP agrees.
The Committee’s rationale was that the previous arrangements were incompatible with a person’s right to privacy under the European Convention on Human Rights and other elements of UK law.
They said they wanted to bring the rules around naming an arrested MP in line with standard practice for naming an ordinary member of the public in such circumstances. Official guidelines say that police will only name an arrested person if there’s an exceptional reason to do so, like a threat to life.
Why hasn’t the Conservative party named the MP?
We asked the Conservatives why they have not named or suspended the MP in question.
A spokesperson told us: “These are serious allegations and it is right that they are investigated fully. The Whip has not been suspended. This decision will be reviewed once the police investigation has been concluded.”
Why hasn’t the media named him?
Once someone’s been arrested, the rules around what can be published are very strict. The idea is to make sure that if a case ever reaches a court trial, future jurors will not be prejudiced by what they’ve read or seen in the media.
In May 2020, the Court of Appeal endorsed a previous ruling by the High Court that said “in general, a person does have a reasonable expectation of privacy in a police investigation up to the point of charge”. That case involved the news organisation Bloomberg, who had wanted to report the name of a businessman identified in documents relating to a bribery investigation.
According to the Society of Editors, which campaigns for press freedom, the ruling “that those under investigation by the police have the right to remain anonymous until charged will serve to help the rich and powerful evade scrutiny”.
Whatever you make of the decision, we should remember that journalists hear plenty of rumours in the normal course of reporting. In order to publish them, we have to be confident that they’re true. In a case like this, most media outlets would wait until the person has been named by the police.
And the stakes are high. Publishing something that turns out to be incorrect could result in libel action from someone who was wrongly accused, or even a conviction for contempt of court if a judge thinks what was published might prejudice the outcome of a trial. These rules also apply to ordinary members of the public, including on social media.