When I was young and read newspapers to impress my father, I was fascinated by the use of the phrase “name withheld on request” that sometimes appeared. I spent many fruitless hours trying to figure out just when such requests were made. Did the thief caught in the act call out even as he was about to be loaded into the police vehicle, “Guys, please don’t use my name in your newspaper reports of this incident”? And why did reporters oblige?

At what point did a person admitted to hospital following a road accident announce his desire to keep his name from getting into the newspapers? Or was there a universal understanding about such matters.? In  which case, what about the thief or the casual passerby who might want to get his name in the newspapers? Is there a signal to let the reporter know?

I once thought I read a report which went: “The Commissioner of Police (name withheld on request) spoke recently of a rise in a specific crime (nature of crime withheld on request), and warned citizens (all names withheld on request) not to leave open their houses (addresses withheld on request), especially on holidays (descriptions withheld on request) and weekends (name of days withheld on request).”

Or perhaps it was “The vehicle (make and colour withheld on request) came at top speed from (name of the road withheld by request) and hit me on the side (right or left, withheld on request), “said young (age withheld on request) (name withheld on request too).

Sometimes newspapers get wrong the spirit of “name withheld on request”. I read a report which said Susan D’Souza (name withheld on request) broke down on questioning and admitted that was indeed her name. On another occasion, the name was withheld as requested by the person concerned, but for some reason, her photograph was printed. The editor might have argued (I am not sure he actually did so) that there was nothing mentioned about using photographs.

I suspect there are an equal number of people (if not more) who are happy to be named in reports of any sort, from petty robberies to walking behind celebrities. “Name mentioned on insistence” in a bracket would cover that situation nicely, I think. I was once told a story by an ancient journalist who said that in the early days of his career, reporters often mentioned the names of prominent people who were in the crowd for a cricket or football match. “Sometimes they gave us gifts in appreciation,” he said.

I could, of course, tell you the name of the reporter who told me this story. But his name has been withheld on request.

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