Editorial: Should suspects keep their privacy?

Foreigners reading Swedish newspapers – including The Local – are often surprised by the way crime is reported here. In particular, the Swedish convention of almost never naming suspects is something that we, as British and American journalists based in Sweden, constantly grapple with.

The names are usually taken out of the reporting by journalists, not by police or the courts. When a case comes to court, we get documents from the court detailing the full names and addresses of the accused, and the names of the victims.

This leads to tortuous constructions, such as “the 33-year old man,” being repeated throughout an article (something that gets worse when a suspect celebrates a birthday between committing the alleged crime and coming to trial – “the 33-year old, who was 32 when he committed the crime”).

The following paragraphs from the press code are particularly important in explaining why journalists tend to refrain from publishing names of suspects:

“Consider carefully the consequences of publishing a name if that can harm people. Refrain from such a publication unless it is obviously in the public interest to publish the name.”

“If a name is not given avoid publishing photos or information on job, age, title nationality, gender or something else that would make identification possible.”

At the moment we have chosen to follow Swedish practice of not publishing this information, although we tend to push this as far in favour of naming the suspects as possible. Therefore, when large parts of the Swedish press were naming ‘Haga Man’, Niklas Lindgren (after he admitted to the attacks), we also started to name him. TT and SVT still aren’t naming him, but this in our view is excessively cautious.

There are plenty of good arguments in favour of naming suspects and convicted prisoners: the basic principle that journalists should provide as much relevant information as possible in an impartial manner being the most significant of these. American journalists visiting Sweden are often particularly insistent that this point should be considered before all others.

A point often used in Britain to justify identifying suspects is that naming someone arrested and charged with a crime removes suspicion from anyone who might have been questioned earlier in the investigation. People’s identities are usually only kept secret when to identify them would risk identifying the victim – in incest or rape cases, for instance.

Another factor to take into consideration is that justice should be conducted as far as possible in the public arena. People are charged and prosecuted in the name of the Swedish people – that justice is seen to be done is important.

On a practical level, people have made the point that naming a suspect on the loose can help police track him down. There is also the advantage that using names and pictures can jog the memories of witnesses.

All this can arguably be done without sensationalizing a case, although the tabloids will inevitably be tempted to do so.

Indeed, in some cases not naming people involved in a case can lead to greater sensationalism. Take the example of the Knutby murders: did referring to Åsa Waldau as ‘the Bride of Christ’, to Helge Fossmo as ‘the Pastor’ and to Sara Svensson as ‘the Nanny’ actually turn a case about the deaths of two women into a soap opera?

In fact, are we looking at the wrong issue? Is it perhaps more worrying that crimes are reported here in every sensational detail (names apart) before they have even reached court. Does this detract from the respect that should be accorded to the judicial process.

The argument against naming the people charged is simple: they are innocent until proven guilty, and mud sticks. Is it in the interests of justice that someone perceived in the public eye to be guilty but found not guilty by the courts should have to live out their lives in fear of reprisals?

A powerful argument, and one that cannot be refuted, except to say that the combined weight of the arguments in favour of naming might balance this out.

Ultimately, though, there is an intrinsic value for newspapers in following the press code, even if this code might sometimes be found wanting. But it might be healthy for the Swedish media to reappraise whether the current rules are really in the public interest.

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