Megan: new law could have given Eastbourne teacher anonymity

HAD Eastbourne teacher Jeremy Forrest fled to France with schoolgirl Megan Stammers next week, then the media could have been prevented from naming the 30-year-old.

The couple were spotted in Bordeaux, France, yesterday lunchtime after extensive media appeals in this country and on the continent, with images of the Bishop Bell maths teacher and his 15-year-old pupil splashed across newspapers and television screens.

The police appeal was the first item on Thursday night’s “Crimewatch” programme on BBC1.

Police have said that it was thanks to these media appeals which helped to locate the couple eight days after they had fled Eastbourne and headed across to France on a Dover-Calais crossing.

Forrest is currently in police custody in Bordeaux awaiting extradition to the UK on suspicion of child abduction and is expected to appear in court in the French city on Tuesday. Meanwhile Megan is expected to return home to East Sussex this weekend.

However, The Society of Editors has condemned new legislation which comes into force on Monday which gives lifelong anonymity to teachers accused of offences against children until they have been charged.

Unless the ruling is overturned by a magistrate, it would mean that in future, in cases such as this, the media would not have been able to name the Ringmer-based teacher.

Bob Satchwell, executive director of The Society of Editors, condemned the implementation as an attack on freedom of speech: “It will be a criminal offence for anyone – pupil, parent, police, school, local authority, whistle-blower, media – even to inform parents or the general public that an identified teacher has admitted that the allegation is true and has resigned, has been disciplined, or even cautioned for the offence.

He added: “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 Department of Education has insisted, however, that the new law would not affect coverage in cases such as that of Forrest.

A spokesman said: “This change will not affect cases like the one currently getting national attention. The police, media organisations and others will be able to apply to a magistrate for an order lifting teacher anonymity.

“If it is in the best interest of the child, this will be granted straightaway so the public can help the police. No teacher who has been charged with an offence, or where a warrant for arrest has been issued, will enjoy anonymity.”

But Bob Satchwell countered: “It would affect cases like this critically in the sense that in accusations against a teacher, unless there is a charge, you have to go court to name them. The idea that going to court is easy is a nonsense.

“It’s time-consuming and expensive and any application is likely to be opposed.

“We’ve seen from other cases that social services and the police are not always quick to act and this is one of the arguments that we made to the education department.

“The ministers seem to be relying on speedy action by the police to bring charges, but the opposite is likely to be true.

“This is not just about the media. If you’ve got a group of parents and one of their children says that they have been assaulted they can’t even discuss it with other parents.

“It’s absolutely ludicrous that parents and other teachers would not be able to discuss their concerns with other people. People could be prosecuted for telling the truth.”