Protecting the identity of Baby P's killers: The courts vs the people vs the Internet

Martin Belam by Martin Belam, 17 November 2008

Update 11th August 2009: The court order preventing publication of the identities of Tracey Connelly and Steven Barker has now been lifted.

Update 1st May 2009: This story, that one of Baby P's killers was facing additional charges of abuse against a second child, explains why the names had to be kept out of the public domain back in November 2008.



Original article from 17th November 2008:
The last few days have shown how very difficult it is to keep information out of the public domain, if the public are determined to find it out. A lot of comparisons have been made about the cases of 'Baby P' and Victoria Climbié, but in many ways they took place in a very different media landscape.

'Baby P' has his own Wikipedia page, created on November 12th, within hours of the court verdicts being announced. In 2000, when Victoria was killed, Wikipedia did not exist. It was not until the 4th anniversary of her death in April 2004 that someone made a page about 'The murder of Victoria Climbié'.

Trying to stick to the terms of the court order preserving the anonymity of 'Baby P''s killers has been very testing for a lot of sites online. Today, Wikipedia editors had to make several revisions to the 'Baby P' page to remove the killer's names. They also took the unusual step of removing the 'diffs' that showed what had been added and removed.

Nevertheless, all this information was carefully being archived on the Wikirage site, which produces a chart of which Wikipedia pages are currently getting the most edits.

Google was also a useful tool for finding out the details that the court wanted kept secret. Their cache on Monday afternoon still contained a BBC News report from late last year that not only named those charged with the death of 'Baby P', but also the toddlers proper name, and, incredibly, their street addresses.

A Telegraph report initially from around the same time could also be located in Google by using search terms which referenced the names of the people involved in the case. However, the article was edited by the paper on November 13th to remove any mention of the case, and was also expunged from the Google cache.

The cache of the BBC story was taken on November 4th of this year, and it is unclear to me why neither Google or the BBC have made sure it was removed.

The other big difference between 2000 and 2008 when we consider the Internet is the sheer scale of usage. According to National Statistics, 65% of households in the UK are now online, compared to 46% in 2002, and, obviously, less in 2000. In July 2000, only 17% of UK Internet users were believed to visit 'chat rooms or sites'. Now, social media sites like Facebook and Bebo are ubiquitous amongst mainstream Internet access.

Additionally, the majority of mainstream media websites now carry comments and forums. Today I've watched a series of threads on The Sun, ITN, Telegraph and Mirror sites get indexed by Google for publishing the child's mother's name, only for the threads to be pulled. It must be a tough day to be a moderator.

It is difficult to see how much longer the court ruling can be expected to hold. If the anonymity restriction is lifted, it will at least remove the curious moral anomaly that people who worked on the case are free to be named, shamed and hounded by the press, whereas the actual perpetrators of the dreadful crime are protected by the state from the prying public.

Please note: I have not included screengrabs or URLs in this blog post in order to avoid any risk of breaching the court order myself.

34 Comments

I still can't quite understand how the media was able to run photos of the child at the weekend - under headlines which still called him Baby P. Isn't a photo liable to identify him to people who knew the family?

In response to Simon hb: Libel is not the law being envoked by the courts here. It would appear to be a section 39 order, banning identification of a young person in an adult court. However, the court does not have the right to ban the identification of a dead child as in this case. It is percular that they have not released his name as well. His name would already of been public at the time of his death, during an inquest.

One thing that's striking about this is that almost no-one online is making the case for why anonymity should apply in some cases.

If almost no-one is explaining why anonymity can be a good thing, should we be surprised if lots of people aren't persuaded?

Making this case certainly wouldn't suddendly persuade anyone, but I think it's (another) example of the legal system failing to explain what it's about and why.

My understanding is that court orders don't apply to old stories, so the BBC and other news papers were under no obligation to take them down.

The thought being that newspapers can't shred old copies of newspapers, but that obviously has much wider implications on the web, as we've seen.

You're right, Martin, it's been very hard work. There's nothing we can do, unfortunately, except keep deleting the names as and when they appear.

Mark: We can't explain why the anonymity is necessary without risking a violation of the order. It is in place for a good reason but you'll have to take my word on that, I'm afraid.

i think the public should be told who these animals are then let them out and leave it upto the public to give them there punishment i know id like to be in a room with baby p s mum if you can call her a mum

Uh-oh, here we go...I pretty much usually let anything go in the comments pages here, but the message above is just a sample of hatred for the people involved pouring into my comment inbox at the moment.

As well as that, several people have tried to post comments naming the individuals, clearly not having read my own intention not to breach the court order on this website.

If you want to leave comments which directly address the issues I've raised in my blog post about the court gag, online publishing and the mainstream press, then they are fine, and I'll publish them.

If, on the other hand, you just want to leave a comment in general berating the criminals or trying to name them, then perhaps you could instead try and use message boards elsewhere.

I've been looking into another aspect of this which is user generated content which has led to baby p's mother identity being spread all over some social networking sites. I wholeheartedly support the gagging order (partly because I trust there's a good reason, but largely due to comments like the one you've highlighted above), but I worry about how easy the internet has made it to breach - at least with the BBC and other media outlets you can trust them to (largely) obey the law, but what recourse is there for those breaking the rules. Will people who are not being as responsible as yourself ever be recognised and tackled?

People everywhere are making the mistake of thinking that the Court Order banning identification of Baby P and those who killed him is to protect the anonymity of the abusers. This is not so. It is to protect other innocent children of the family and also, I believe, to prevent interference with a future court case.

Anyone with half a brain who really wants to know what's going on simply has to run a few clever Google searches, making full use of the cache facility.

It is correct that a new court order made now would not affect information published in a physical newspaper a year ago, as a physical newspaper is considered "dead" to the general public within a week. However, that obviously does not apply to the Internet.

An old article which remains current and available on-line after a Court Order is in place IS IN BREACH of the order and SHOULD be removed or edited to meet the Order's restrictions.

Dawn, remember the old saying
"He who fights with monsters might take care lest he thereby become a monster. And if you gaze for long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you."
(Friedrich Nietzsche)

What happened to Baby P is evil, however letting it turn other people evil is also, well, evil; that is why we have a system of courts, checks and balances to ensure that we can bring monsters like Baby P's murders to justice without creating more monsters.

As I sat here tonight eating a slice of sharp cheese and drinking a nice hot cup of tea I came upon this site after reading several dozen web articles about Baby P. I am in the USA and I am wondering why the UK is protecting the involved. Maybe I have missed something here, but by knowing who was involved it may help the people who are prosecuting and defending the plaintiffs. In the US we will protect the young and sometimes the victim but why protect the mother and people involved with the killing? It makes no sense to me at all. When you make a choice to something like this, you also leave any anonymity at the door. I would like go think we have evolved enough not to respond to this with a mob mentality. Cheers

I think Rhona probably comes closer to the truth here, saying that they have anonymity because of a future court case. At least I hope this is the case.

As a local news reporter, I cover the local magistrates court, and the basic rule is that what is said in court is free to be published. This is the rule known as Absolute Privilege.

There is no rule in English media law allowing the prevention of the naming of any defendant in any case, unless that person is under 18, although if this is the case, the defendant can be named in special circumstances.

The OPs shock at the inclusion of the street addresses of those charged should not invoke shock. This is done to prevent others with the same or similar names from suing a newspaper if it possible they can be wrongly identified.

As there is no rule that protects the identity of the defendant' I can only assume that there is some other factor - like another impending court case - preventing the media from naming the guilty two.

The OPs shock at the inclusion of the street addresses of those charged should not invoke shock. This is done to prevent others with the same or similar names from suing a newspaper if it possible they can be wrongly identified.

I should clarify that my shock wasn't that the addresses were published, but that given the sensitive nature of the information being displayed, that the BBC hadn't approached Google to get the article removed from the cache, as The Telegraph appeared to have done.

I can appreciate there's a sound reason for the anonymity, although it was only by nosing around among sites such as this that I start to understand. I wonder why the press doesn't make an attempt to explain (without giving anything away) or do they actually want to inflame readers? This is something I've always suspected!
Will the reason for withholding names become clearer with the passing of time?

I very much agree with Jane Napier here: there are few more annoying expressions in the English language than "for legal reasons", yet the media seems hell bent on using it to cover up their own inadequacies in explaining details of news stories; even the BBC's article about web sites breaking the order didn't make even a rudimentary attempt to explain what it was about. It's not credible to me that it's impossible to go some way to explaining he reason for the gag without violating it; I've heard rumours like those posted here that it has to do with protecting other children or because of pending charges (that was Guido's theory, BTW), but publicising these reasons, if true, wouldn't break all but the most draconian of court orders.

By the way, does anyone else think it's perverse that there should be a court order that has the effect of banning publication of itself? Let's say I decide to publish the names, and am brought up for contempt: couldn't I argue quite reasonably that having been prevented from reading the order I have no way of verifying that it actually exists or what its terms might be, and I can hardly be expected to comply with a rumour?

In reading about this case, I must admit I am confused about something. I can understand why UK news sources may not print the identities of the parents. But it strikes me as odd that NO news site will print them. Not even news sites here in the United States, where I live.

Why is this? What on earth would a US (or Russian, or Irish, French, etc) website care about a court order from an English judge? What possible power can an English judge hold over them?

The only valid reason in preventing the names of those involved is if more charges say for murder are bought.
Protecting other children from information is not valid , by that logic no adult with children should be identified by the courts. The Court should let the public no the reason otherwise it seems that they are in contempt of the public.

About a minute after the last comment was left, someone phoned me up to berate me at length for agreeing with the court's ruling in this case.

Let me be clear here, I believe that if there are reasons to reveal the identities of these criminals, then it should be by challenging the court ruling, not just by mob rule via Facebook and Google.

The Express site have only just removed a story containing these details this morning, after I kindly emailed them yesterday to point out it was still on the site. I don't believe Peta's newspaper analogy can hold when people are posting the links to the old pages across social media sites. If it's still up there and people are reading it, it's fair to say you're still publishing it. Another example where the law is a long, long way behind the realities of the net...

Paul Wakely so you feel good about helping less people to know who these people are. The man in the case is a known sadist . The maximum he will get is 14 years -meaning out in seven. Any bets he will try and kill again.
If the court was concerned with protecting the public he would be found insane and held like the "insane" guy who tried to kidnap Princess Ann. All the liberal state is afraid of is one day something bad happens to this guy and a jury refuses to convict the vigilante.

@peterking I don't think you really understand what we're talking about - it's not about anyone feeling good, it's about upholding UK law. You need to understand that the media ignoring reporting restrictions and contempt of court rulings can result in guilty people walking free from court - I'm sure you wouldn't want the next "sadist" to enrage you to walk free because newspapers and websites cause the trial to collapse. These laws aren't simply about spoiling the fun of vigilantes...

dear sirs
if there is any justice in this stupid country of ours it seems to be rapidly disapearing.
in a case like this justice will only be handed out by the inmates of there respected prisons.prison officers have GOT to turn a blind eye.
god bless baby p
brian

i dont think the court should protect there identety infact they should hang the scum if the court do protect them then the court is as bad as them let baby p rest in peace and get rid of them monsters

Paul Weekly -What trial prejudiced by publicity? As the guilty guy has been convicted the people have a right to know, who he is. This guy will be out in about seven years and as he is a sadist, known for torturing animals he will be looking for more fun.

Hiding the IDs of the criminals gives the courts and police more control over the situation. If everyone could go around to "Bobs" house to give him a piece of their mind (and possibly their bat, 9mm, knife etc) then the police/courts would have a lot more on their plate. It is a CIVIL process, letting the public loose would be a very uncivil process and is asking for chaos.

Not only that, but it also helps to prolong the punishment of those responsible. Personally I'd prefer if they rot in jail rather than all their cell mates knowing what they did, because they would not last long.

It's crazy, I've already seen one website come down for mentioning names yet the names were there for all to see on the HM Courts Service website from the 15th of April up until yesterday. Now it shows 'no information to display'.

I have been confused over this issue of "Contempt Of Court" for some time. Working with newspapers, I have seen many times a removal notice that the newspaper follows, but for the story to remain in Google's Cache for some time after.

As it is a "Contempt Of Court" issue and not a Libel issue, surely Google is breaking the law here as it is not matter of Publication?

Is there any reason why no "Contempt Of Court" proceedings have been brought against a search engine?

I have read in the newspapers today that when these evil people are released, which why this should ever be even considered is beyond me, the taxpayer is expected to fork out approx £1m to give them new identities etc. Where is justice in this country for anybody let alone these poor defenceless souls. This child was tortured for months on end by these sadistic people who obviously still to this day have absolutely no remorse, so at some stage in the future will be released to do exactly the same torturous things again! Even now our so called justice system is depriving Baby Peter, others before him, and those poor unfortunate souls to come - as they will - of any peace or hope. I truly despair.

hi i dont see why we should pay to have them protected open the prison doors chuck them out to the public who protected baby p ? there scum of the earth not worth a penny .lets us mothers at them

I'm a mother of 4 boys (21, 18, 12, 2) and I would "NEVER" allow anyone to abuse them. Why should the taxpayers pay for their protection when Little Peter didn't receive any protection. I read the timeline for little peter and can't understand why Peter was not taken away from his mother and given to his real father and his family. Here's the link on the timeline.

The only punishment for those animals is "Shoot them". How a person can do this kind of act? This is really a shameful deed.

when them c**ts are in prison sleeping at night i hope some nutty person who is in prison with them saddos i hope the nutty person stabs them while they are slepping

You always have to be very careful when you are slepping, Joyce.

Keep up to date on my new blog