George Entwistle, Lord McAlpine and Jimmy Savile.

Media disasters ... the director-general of the BBC, George Entwistle (left), resigned over the false accusation against Lord McAlpine (centre). Right, Jimmy Savile.

Last Friday a troop of London media footsoldiers camped outside the home of an Australian entertainer in Berkshire.

It was a chilly day, but – unusually for the Brits – most complaints weren't about the weather.

A secret police is a dangerous thing, reporting the arrest of suspects is an important safeguard in a free society.  

British blogger Paul Staines

They were about the fact that they would not, unless someone broke ranks, be able to publish or broadcast two words: the instantly-recognisable name of the man they were pursuing.

The deputy editor of the Sun, Geoff Webster, attends court over alleged illicit payments last week.

The deputy editor of the Sun, Geoff Webster, attends court over alleged illicit payments last week. Photo: Reuters

Partly they were being kind. Partly they had legal fears. And partly it was due to the self-conscious paranoia that has enveloped British media for the past year.

Last week an 82 year-old man from Berkshire was arrested by British police on suspicion of sexual offences.

He was not charged, and bailed to a date in May pending further enquiries. He is being investigated as part of Operation Yewtree, launched after claims emerged that 1970s TV host Jimmy Savile had abused teenage girls.

The accusations against this man were not linked to Savile.

And that's all the news fit to print according to official, on-the-record sources, and it's pretty much all you can find in the mainstream, professional media.

However, those who follow Twitter or a number of blogs have a name to put to the reports: the name of a high-profile Australian entertainer.

"What a disgrace mainstream media won't name [the man]," one tweet read.

"The MSM propaganda machine is working overtime in a bid to sway public opinion," another blogged.

Australian PR director Geoffrey Stackhouse chose to name the entertainer and then use it as a "teaching moment" to spruik for business on his company blog.

"Our legal system is based on the presumption of innocence, but sadly the court of public opinion is not," he wrote, without apparent irony.

"The internet is ablaze with speculation about the arrest and an online rumour uncorrected for 24 hours becomes fact. So what would you do if it was your reputation or your brand in the spotlight?" It was not clear what Mr Stackhouse's sources were for naming the entertainer.

Perhaps it was Twitter, which overflowed with the man's name over the weekend, some users being slightly cautious about it (that is, phrasing it as a question), most not, and many jumping straight to "X is a paedo" with no visible pause to consider the allegation's basis in fact, legality or compassion.

Or Stackhouse may have played an easy game of join-the-dots. The man has been described in Australian media as an Australian entertainer, popular in Britain, who lives in Berkshire and was aged 82 last month.

This narrows the field a tad. No wonder reporters at the stakeout expressed fervent hope the antipodes would be the first to break the naming taboo.

For its part, Fairfax Media - publisher of this website - has been unable to confirm from official sources the identity of the arrested man, notwithstanding the blizzard of social media accusation.

The British politics and media blogger Paul Staines, aka Guido Fawkes, has jumped the hurdle that the press did not, naming the suspect on the principle of free speech.

He wrote: "A secret police is a dangerous thing, reporting the arrest of suspects is an important safeguard in a free society.

"No judge has ordered reporting restrictions in relation to [the man], no super-injunctions prevent the reporting of news concerning him."

Staines told Fairfax many British media have plenty of evidence to confidently name the suspect – including seeing police at his house when it was raided last year – but arrests following the phone-hacking scandal have led to a "compliance structure" in the press.

Journalists have been arrested over their "off-the-record" contact with police. Last week The Sun's deputy editor Geoff Webster was in court charged with authorising payments to public officials for information.

The Leveson inquiry into press regulation recommended an end to all off-the-record briefings to the press by police. "Leaks about forthcoming arrests or the involvement of the famous in the criminal justice system are not in the public interest," Lord Leveson said.

In this climate, newsrooms are unable to report stories the way they used to. "The Met [London's police] just won't give you any guidance," one reporter told Press Gazette in December. "They say there's no such thing as off-the-record any more.

"A year ago you'd say, 'Would I be wrong if I wrote x?' They won't do that now." Fairfax understands that many in the British media have established the name off the record, through various sources, including some close to the investigation. But they can't publish on this basis.

"If a newspaper published that it was [the person], they would be asked, 'How do you know?'," Staines said. "You can't say that you have a contact at the Met who confirmed it. Well, you can say that to the editor, but not the lawyer." Staines said this was "curtailing the freedom of the press through fear".

"It is going to leave a lot of black spaces in newspapers," he said. "I don't think it's a healthy state of affairs."

Another reason for excessive caution is that media reforms prompted by the Leveson report are still in the hands of politicians and the public (and Hugh Grant). Offending the public mood could have long-term consequences for press freedom.

Still another is the recent scandal involving former Tory treasurer Lord McAlpine, who was wrongly accused of child abuse in a BBC Newsnight report. If this investigation came to naught after the entertainer's name was tarnished, the press could take the blame.

"Heard of McAlpine?" one BBC reporter at the stakeout said. "We've never going to be the first to name anyone ever again."

The accused man has helped keep things quiet. Others investigated by Yewtree angrily, publicly, quotably denied their guilt. In this case there has been silence. His agent does not return calls, emails or texts.

The stakeout was uneventful.

Finally, and most generously, there is the "being nice" explanation. The entertainer is much-loved by generations of TV watchers. Police are taking the accusation seriously, but they evidently do not have enough evidence to press charges at this stage. He is old, and reportedly was so upset by the accusation that he spent Christmas in hospital being treated for acute stress. His camp is said to be emphasising his frail health to newspapers.

Is it such a bad idea not to name him just yet? Or is such self-censorship a slippery slope? So far, the old media have one answer to this question, and social media another.

But, as shown with the photos of a naked Prince Harry in Vegas, there is only so much a tabloid can stand until its instincts take over.

And if one domino falls, every media outlet is likely to follow.