Sun opens front in free-speech war by reporting Rolf Harris arrest for sex offences

Media war reignited with tabloid's reporting of Rolf Harris' arrest in Savile probe, a calculated free-speech challenge to lawyers and the police

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 23 April, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 23 April, 2013, 3:49am


It was a typical British tabloid splash - the news that the entertainer Rolf Harris was arrested on suspicion of sex offences - but the headline emblazoned across The Sun's front page on Friday was also a pre-emptive strike in a fresh freedom-of-speech battle between newspapers and lawyers to the famous and powerful.

Rupert Murdoch's tabloid billed its lead as a "world exclusive", but in reality The Sun was the first mainstream publisher to report what had been widely reported on websites and social media, information that had been an open secret in newsrooms for months but had remained unpublished amid legal pressure from Harris' lawyers.

The story about the 83-year-old Australian appeared on the widely read Guido Fawkes blog in January, and the comedian Russell Brand tweeted an oblique reference in March. But in fact Harris was originally interviewed under caution and his house searched in November.

At the time, nobody reported that Harris was the subject of a police investigation - the house search coming just five days ahead of publication of the Leveson report into press standards - amid confusion about the nature of the questions being put to him, and concerns, now believed to be baseless, about his health.

Harris, born in Perth, Western Australia, in 1930, emigrated at the age of 21. He enrolled in art school, but after two years he dropped out and started drawing on children's television programmes. A successful career in television followed, accompanied by a substantial musical output that comprised 30 studio albums and 48 singles, including Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport and Two Little Boys, which went to number one in 1969.

Harris is the latest famous name to be arrested in Operation Yewtree, set up to investigate sexual abuse by the late Jimmy Savile. It is not clear what period the alleged offences date back to, but Harris denies wrongdoing.

Starting with Leveson, a series of developments has seen lawyers try to pressure media not to name any individuals arrested. Typically, when an individual is arrested the police confirm their sex, age and location, but not their name, prompting a guessing game in newsrooms.

Freedom-of-speech activists argue that naming arrested suspects provides valuable information to the public. "There's a really obvious chilling happening here on what are legitimate rights, and it is in the public interest to report if it's Rolf Harris who has been arrested as part of a major investigation," said Padraig Reidy, of Index on Censorship.

Against a backdrop of the Leveson inquiry, a coalition of lawyers, judges and police groups has called for a ban on police naming people arrested, meaning the public will know only in "exceptional" circumstances who has been detained. Leveson suggested the public should be prevented from knowing the names of arrest suspects in all but "exceptional" circumstances.

Lawyers for Harris explicitly cited the Leveson report in e-mails and letters aimed at stifling news of his arrest, a successful tactic until Friday. The lawyers warned one publisher "there is no public interest in publishing such content as is entirely self-evident following the publication of the Leveson report".

Campaigners for freedom of expression were quick to condemn the legal moves, describing as "alarming" the attempt to suppress reporting of an accurate fact. "In any kind of case there can be circumstances where it is legitimate to withhold information on arrests but the more you looked at this Harris case you thought that this was not one of them," said Reidy.