UK Judge Says Accurate Journalism Is An Invasion Of Privacy In Cliff Richard Case
from the just-wait-for-official-statements-and-become-stenographers,-I-guess dept
Time for another reminder that the UK is not some sort of America analogue — one that favors pomp and circumstance to opinionated bumper stickers and stabbings to shootings. The UK government may say nice things about free speech, but when it all comes down to it, its citizens might as well be colony residents still seeking to break free from the Kingdom’s confines.
Sir Cliff Richard has just won a lawsuit against the BBC, securing a large payout from the journalistic entity for its outrageous act of journalism. Eriq Gardner of The Hollywood Reporter has the details.
“The veracity of the published information in this case is not in issue. What the BBC published was accurate. What is more questionable is the method of obtaining the information.”
That quote comes from a lengthy new decision from the High Court in England, which reviewed a privacy case brought by Sir Cliff Richard, one of the U.K.’s most successful singers ever.
So, where does this leave British journalism? That’s anyone’s guess. Accurate reporting is great. But you’d better obtain your info in a way that please whatever court you might be facing years down the road. And you sure as hell better not “sensationalize” your accurate reporting.
The fact that it was the lead story on the 1 p.m. news; that the story was accompanied by a ticker at the bottom of the screen; how Johnson was broadcasting from outside the property; shots of cars entering the property; helicopter shots; moving pictures of the property; people walking back and forth…
“It may have made for more entertaining and attention-grabbing journalism,” says the dour British judge. “It may be justifiable or explicable on the footing that TV is a visual medium and pictures are part of what it does. It did not, however, add any particularly useful information…I still consider that the main purpose of utilizing the helicopter was to add sensationalism and emphasis to the scoop of which the BBC was so proud. The BBC viewed this as a big story, and presented it in a big way. This was also manifested in other aspects of the coverage — the coverage from Portugal, pointless though it turned out to be, lent an urgency to the presentation of the story.”
The BBC was tipped off by someone within the police department that Cliff Richards was under investigation and that his house would likely be searched. The BBC did what it could to verify this info and flew its helicopter over Richard’s house on the off chance it was being raided. Everything reported was a fact, but the judge in this case simply did not like how it was handled. Suddenly, normal journalism is an “invasion of privacy,” worthy of damages being awarded to the person being accurately reported on.
The BBC isn’t happy with this decision, rightly noting that it upends the practice of journalism, especially in cases of public interest, like law enforcement investigations for instance. The lengthy decision recounts all the facts — including emails between the BBC and their police source. What can’t be found in the dozens of pages is anything justifying this ruling. This appears to be a personal decision by a judge who didn’t like how Sir Cliff Richard was handled by the BBC and decided to punish the press outlet for offending his sensibilities.
In the United States, this would immediately be appealed on First Amendment grounds. In the UK, it’s not so clear how one undoes a harmful decision that penalizes accurate reporting judges don’t like. I’m sure it will be appealed, but there’s no First Amendment protection for journalism, so the basis for an attack isn’t clear. The judicial system still has plenty of other reasons to reject the BBC’s appeal, even though the basis — accurate reporting should be legal — would seemingly be an inarguable point.
Until this is overturned, any number of people who don’t like unflattering press coverage will be able to leverage it to pursue journalists for accurate reporting. If the UK government really wants a press that only covers people who want to be covered, it can keep creating exceptions to its very limited speech protections and turn the “right to be forgotten” into a right to never be written about in the first place.