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Public interest, private curiosity and the right to be forgotten

by Andy

I was convicted of a number of internet sex offences in 2010. My case appeared in the local newspaper twice:  at committal and the sentencing hearing.

A few days after I was charged my half-sister – Anne – whom I had only met once only a year before – died. Someone found my address on a piece of paper at her house and her solicitor contacted me to give me the funeral arrangements. This was a strange situation for me (and my wife) and left us with a dilemma. Because of the charges I would be facing in court, would it be right, in the circumstances, to attend her funeral, or should I stay away? We decided that, in spite of the fact that I only knew her from a very pleasant day we had with her at her home, it was really important that we should attend.

We had a good day. Her friends were interested to meet us and gave a sympathetic hearing to my story about the way my dad ran off from his wife, setting up with my mother a few years later. By the end of the day, I felt we had made some new friends. She had died intestate and I inherited her estate (another, though less important reason for attending the funeral…’He got all her money and he never even came to the funeral!’). So I had to return to Scotland to clear the house and tie up some legal stuff.

Two of her good friends lived up her street and shortly after we arrived, one came to the door. I expected a few friendly words and perhaps an offer of help. Instead, I was confronted with the statement: ‘People up here know about you’. Apparently, someone had Googled the news item about my committal hearing which, by then, had happened. When we got home, we had an email from someone we met at the funeral who described herself as ‘Anne’s best friend’, berating me for the evil person I was, with the inference that my wife, by supporting me, was as bad.

That was an early lesson about how damning these stories can be. Since then I can think of at least two other occasions when my inclusion in the paper has had an effect on my life. One was the inability to get house insurance (‘Was your case in the paper?’) and, on another occasion, its use to ‘out’ me when I was a member of an adult drama group. The group knew of my convictions and welcomed my participation but, as it turned out, did not possess the courage to allow me to remain a member after the URL of the story about me was circulated on Facebook.

All that said, I know I have been lucky. In lots of ways, my life is the same:  my wife stuck with me, my daughters have forgiven me, most people I know are supportive and, luckily, I had retired from work before this all blew up. But there have been several situations where I have given my name to someone I have just met and gone on to think: ‘I wonder if they’ll look me up?’

I like the idea of freedom of the press/information too, but does what has happened to me truly show the value and importance of this? Is the ability of anyone and everyone to look me up on the web a matter of public interest, or merely something of interest to some of the public?

Finally, a lot of people seem to think that having this stuff online protects the public in some way. In the sex offenders’ programme I attended, only 2 or 3 of us out of 12 had had our names in the paper, and one of those said how relieved he was that he had the same name as a film director so he was well down a Google list. I guess that, except for the most heinous of offences inclusion in the local newspaper depends on arbitrary factors such as how much news there is on that particular day, rather than an obligation to include all convictions. To look to search engines in the belief that they will dig out all wrongdoers etc. is a dangerous illusion.

For what it is worth, I cannot see that I should not have the right to be forgotten after my five years on the Sex Offenders’ Register is complete.

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