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.

Filed Under: , , , , , ,

Rate this comment as insightful
Rate this comment as funny
You have rated this comment as insightful
You have rated this comment as funny
Flag this comment as abusive/trolling/spam
You have flagged this comment
The first word has already been claimed
The last word has already been claimed
Insightful Lightbulb icon Funny Laughing icon Abusive/trolling/spam Flag icon Insightful badge Lightbulb icon Funny badge Laughing icon Comments icon

Comments on “UK Judge Says Accurate Journalism Is An Invasion Of Privacy In Cliff Richard Case”

Subscribe: RSS Leave a comment
Jeff Green (profile) says:

Well not quite ...

What the BBC reported was “accurate”, sort of. If I call the police local to you and report that you are a paedophile and abused me on several occasions when I was a child I hope the police will investigate. What I suspect you would hope is that on your local TV station your house isn’t filmed as the police drop in, that pictures of them going through your underwear aren’t included along with a final line statement that you haven’t yet been charged.

The BBC even submitted the report for a “scoop of the year award” which is a bit unlikely given what the story turned out to be, fantasist made outrageous claims about renowned star, famous for christian values and celibacy, claims turned out to be false.

Had the BBC reported that Police searched a property belonging to a public figure in the wherever-it-is area after allegations of historical sex abuse there would have been no case. The reporting was not balanced and factual it was blatantly sensational.

MathFox says:

Re: Well not quite ...

Expanding on this: in the EU both privacy and freedom of the press are fundamental rights. Neither of those rights trumps the other, they have to be balanced on a case-by-case basis.

A publisher can publish news which is breaching someones privacy if the benefit to the general public is substantial enough to offset the privacy damage. The means used to gather the information are also relevant; courts in the EU frown on using tools (like a helicopter) to spy on people in areas where they expect privacy.

And yes, that the allegations appeared to be wrong did not help the BBC.

Cdaragorn (profile) says:

Re: Well not quite ...

The fact that you wouldn’t want that to happen is irrelevant. There are many things I don’t “want” to have happen. That doesn’t make it ok to insist on control over things and spaces that are not mine.
The BBC never entered any private space belonging to him. Sure what they did was silly and ridiculous, but that doesn’t make it reasonable to make it illegal.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re: Well not quite ...

“The BBC never entered any private space belonging to him”

While I get what you’re saying here, I’m fairly sure there’s restrictions on filming people from afar even if you don’t step on to their property.

“that doesn’t make it reasonable to make it illegal”

That depends on which part of “it” you’re referring to, of course.

MathFox says:

Re: Re: Well not quite ...

Under European privacy law you have a reasonable expectation of privacy in your own home and garden. Renting a helicopter (or a crane) to make pictures of a private garden (without permission of the owner) is an invasion of privacy at any time. Writing about criminal proceedings is also privacy-sensitive; the lesser the evidence the more reason to be careful not to do damage to the suspect.

Wendy Cockcroft (user link) says:

Re: Re: Re: Well not quite ...

Agreed. Is anybody going to mention the harm done to due process here? By [sensationalising!!!](82px all caps) the raid, then quietly noting in passing that no charges were brought they basically monstered the man.

Freedom of speech is freedom to speak, not to ruin someone’s reputation — and their lives. I’ve seen a man beaten half to death for being branded a paedophile by a lying ex-girlfriend. No evidence, no court case, just an allegation.

It’s the difference between a firehose and a water pistol. With great power comes great responsibility, and the press has the power to make or break a person.

Actions should always have consequences, however free one is.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Well not quite ...

Exactly. Those who’ve never lived in the UK might not understand, but the gutter press is very sensationalistic and have no problem smearing someone’s face and killing their reputation the public eye even if they haven’t even had so much as a court date set. (Christopher Jefferies comes immediately to mind, though there are sadly many other innocent victims).

This goes double for existing celebrities. Crap outlets like the Daily Mail are full of half-assed accusations and half-truths. People can hand have had careers destroyed by mere accusations, let alone if there’s anything behind them (again another case in point – Craig Charles, although thankfully he was eventually able to salvage his career).

What generally doesn’t happen so much is the kind of 24/7 “we’re watching this place live on TV even though nothing’s really going on” kind of coverage that seems so prevalent in the US. Given the above, merely culled from newspapers any intelligent person already know are lying to them half the time, imagine what effect live footage could have.

At least the claim here (Richards’ house being raided) was essentially true. Now imagine if the BBC has the same kind of low standards as the Mail and had no qualms in lying in order to get better ratings…

nae such says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Well not quite ...

Exactly. Those who’ve never lived in the UK
might not understand, but the gutter press is
very sensationalistic and have no problem
smearing someone’s face and killing their
reputation the public eye even if they haven’t
even had so much as a court date set.

the u.s. definitely has problems denouncing and as wendy says monstering. i would suppose that reflects on freedom of speech viewpoints. so where do you draw the line. i agree this is an invasion of privacy, sensational, and fairly insignificant in the face of real problems we face today. unfortunately my dim view of celebrity life drama and sensational crap seems to be in the minority.

but how is the bbc to know the significance beforehand? if importance is key, then there isn’t really a line just a gamble. if we muzzle the press this way what do we lose of value?

i have seen, but can’t dig up, one persons theory that the in the u.s. the press reports disproportionately on the poor and minorities as these people have no finances to support legal recourse. is it the same across the pond? they further theorize this entrenches in the mind of the public this kind of criminal stereotype. as cops are part of the public, the police have this unconscious bias as well.

Wendy Cockcroft (user link) says:

Re: Re: Re:4 Well not quite ...

‘Tis the same over here, nae such.

I share your dim view of celebrity life drama and sensational crap.

RE: muzzling, all I ask is that they report responsibly, bearing in mind the immense power they have to wreck people’s lives. It’s one thing to soberly state that the police have carried out a raid on a house in Buckinghamshire (or wherever) as part of an investigation into historical child abuse investigations and hope to have an update on the matter when charges have been brought. Doing it that way accurately reports the news without smearing anyone. Reputations are protected and we all carry on as usual. Due process is honoured. When the charges are brought, remember that until a guilty verdict is returned the subject is innocent in the eyes of the law. Reporting, in the interests of accuracy, ought to reflect that. This is WHY perp-walking is so damn evil. It declares the subject guilty until proven innocent (but only in the eyes of the law, right?) and thereby obliterates due process.

Monstering a man by splashing wild allegations all over the press, unsupported by any charges, violates his due process rights. It’s not fair and damn it all, it’s not British. I’m not having it.

Anonymous Coward says:

"The BBC was tipped off by someone within the police department"

The BBC, as the government’s official state-run media, was not exactly "tipped off" by the police. They function together, as state agencies normally do. It’s funny that the same government that obviously wanted the police action against Cliff Richard to be widely publicised slapped a media blackout order against the press so they couldn’t report on the arrest of journalist/activist Tommy Robinson.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

Robinson fanboys always seem to get basic facts about him wrong, else they wouldn’t be Robinson fanboys. They seem to think of him as a folk hero who was jailed for standing up to injustice, whereas in fact he’s in reality a career criminal who was jailed for jeopardising the British justice system and risking a very costly retrial because he couldn’t wait for the result before attacking the accused.

“I stand behind Tommy Robinson” is always a good indicator or the stupid and/or wilfully ignorant,

Wendy Cockcroft (user link) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

Agreed. I can’t be dealing with cultic behaviour, whether it’s Robinson, Trump, Hillary (don’t get me started on her unofficial panegyrist Peter Daou), or anyone else. I’ll stand with people on some issues but not all of them and not all of the time.

I mostly agree with TD and many of the commenters where but when I don’t I’ll say so. If you can’t find fault with your heroes, there’s a problem; nobody’s perfect and nobody should be treated as if they were.

On the flip side, nobody should be treated as if they’re the spawn of Satan without proof of unholy provenance.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Many recording artists are promoted on both sides of the Atlantic ocean, but many more are not. And then virtually all of the most popular singers in non-English speaking countries, France, Italy, Germany, Russia, etc, are almost completely unheard of here.

Whenever someone says “Never heard of him” that just means that an insufficient amount of money was spent by the record company to make sure that enough had “heard of him” to make their considerable investment potentially return a profit.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re:

“Either we and or I, must really be isolated from other cultures”

If only there was a communication medium that would allow you to immediately access information about other cultures and inform yourself about what they do. Perhaps even research some quick information about someone, and even sample their music and other works in the same time it would take you type pithy remarks about your wilful ignorance. Perhaps even the same medium you used to make that comment.

Oh well…

“Never heard of him.”

So? I bet if this happened to a country singer, most Brits wouldn’t know who they were. Does that change the story in any way, other than “random people on the internet doesn’t know everybody”?

For the record, yes he is a very, very well known personality in the UK. Popular more in my parent’s generation than now, but he is certainly famous.

Wendy Cockcroft (user link) says:

Re: Re:

I.T. Guy, you’re being grossly unfair; the court of public opinion is informed by the media. If they present a person as a monster then that’s how he will be perceived. Even if he manages to clear his name in court, the allegations will float about on the internet forever being dragged up every now and again to add fuel to the smouldering fire.

Haven’t you heard of due process? Innocent till proven guilty, man! That means no weaponizing the press to ensure a conviction, i.e. perp-walking is teh ebil.

Monstering is the same damn thing as perp-walking since it does the same job by presenting the person as guilty.

PaulT (profile) says:

“Suddenly, normal journalism is an “invasion of privacy,””

It’s telling of the difference between media in the two countries, where a helicopter flying over someone’s house to hold them under surveillance on live national TV is considered “normal journalism” and “invasion of privacy”

In this case, I’ll take the one where the guy doesn’t have his house on TV suggesting to everybody that he’s a criminal before the raid even takes place. We can generally do without that kind of sensationalism, and I’m sure there were more pressing things other than potential celebrity misdeeds to talk about on that day.

Jono793 (profile) says:

Re: Useful information

“this ruling allows judges an immense amount of leeway in evaluating any aspect of a story to determine if part of the story has an adequate level of utility.”

That’s not new. Judges in the UK are required to conduct that exercise when balancing different convention rights. In this case, the right to privacy (under article 8 of the Human Rights Convention), versus the right to freedom of expression (under article 10).

In contrast to the US, where judges engaging in content-based analysis of speech is nearly anathama under the First Amendment.

Anon says:

The Judge is right...

The problem is not free speech, the problem is invasion of privacy. the judge applied the law.

There is a trade-off even if we don’t acknowledge it, even in the USA. The journalists don’t report the names of sexual assault victims, for example.

the problem here is, where to draw the line? We already know the UK has ludicrously imbalanced libel laws (right, “Melanie”?). Why are we surprised they have similarly imbalanced privacy laws to protect the rich and well connected, so they can get satisfaction? I guess you *can* always get what you want.

(Don’t know who Cliff Richards is??? He did the theme song for Windows 95!)

sumgai (profile) says:

Re: The Judge is right...

(Don’t know who Cliff Richards is??? He did the theme song for Windows 95!)

Err, not quite. Although you’ve taken a wide liberty with the term ‘theme song’ for any MS product, I’ll grant you some leeway.

But for a fact, I was there at the original presentation, and I still have the box of W95 that billg himself handed to me. The tune that was played during the intro (with none other than Jay Leno as MC)…. that was The Rolling Stones’ "Start Me Up".

If you were going for ‘the funny’, then you succeeded for the most part. If you were somewhat serious, then you should’ve said that C.R. fronted for The Shadows, until they could cast him off and become the supergroup there were destined to be.


PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: The Judge is right...

Huh. Funny how he mentions “black owned media” reporting and the story, but not Donald Trump taking out a full page ad calling for their deaths.

Also funny how the one rebuttal to a comment about current times he makes has to go back to the 80s. I wonder if something has changed, so that if he refers to something in the last 3 decades what he’s responding to is actually correct.

Wendy Cockcroft (user link) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 The Judge is right...

@ John Smith, all of your assertions are incorrect. Let’s take it from the top:

SHE never accused anyone, she was found unconscious and near death in the park, then taken to hospital. She still can’t remember much so can’t have accused anyone of anything. So who did the accusing?

The cops grabbed some random black guys, perp-walked them and splashed it all over the media to make it look as though Something Had Been Done. This happens on both sides of the Pond, alas.

So, convicted by the media (no due process for you!) these poor shmoes were jailed for years until the true culprit was caught.

The jogger outed herself later on and wrote a book about her experience of recovering from the attack and its aftermath. Other media outlets picked the story up as a Human Interest/Inspirational item.

So yeah, you are very, very wrong. And a damn racist.

Tin-Foil-Hat says:

Mixed Feelings

Many questionable things have been done in the name of journalism. Scaling walls, breaking into homes and it wouldn’t surprise me if obtaining photos via upskirting has happened.

It’s one thing to film or photograph in public but flying a helicopter over private property crosses the line in my opinion. How the information is obtaines is relevant.

Some of the things that are acceptable in the US probably shouldn’t be. We may have rights on paper but the government has created an environment that provides a loophole to deny people their rights in almost every situation. Part of the problem is the liberal use of third parties to gather information on behalf of the government. Everyone from hospitals to media companies have been made agents of the law.

Media companies have become a propaganda arm of for the wealthy and powerful.

Although I don’t consider it “fake news” as Trump alleges, its overall level of bias and embarrassing low quality almost put it in that category.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Mixed Feelings

“Many questionable things have been done in the name of journalism. Scaling walls, breaking into homes and it wouldn’t surprise me if obtaining photos via upskirting has happened”

Paparazzi have obtained many such photos, including upskirts of celebrities getting in/out of taxis outside famous London nightspots (which were then published by gutter rags like the Daily Mail, who will then bemoan sexualisation and moral decline on the next page).

There’s journalism, and then there’s “journalism”. Most modern outlets are sadly dedicated to the latter.

“Although I don’t consider it “fake news” as Trump alleges, its overall level of bias and embarrassing low quality almost put it in that category.”

Trump whines about “fake news” all the time because he needs the idiots who voted for him to not believe actual journalism. He knows the actions he’s committed over the last few decades, and he can’t have those people accepting the facts when they are finally all exposed.

There are outlets out there who still perform decent journalism, but the crappy outlets that depend on gossip and outright fiction sadly get the highest ratings. The truth is boring by comparison, for the most part, so it doesn’t get a look in unless it’s got some some of entertainment angle (see the subject of this story – the same raid on anyone else would not have had that kind of coverage, and it would likely have been some other celebrity-based crap rather than an important story)

Eldakka (profile) says:

> 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.

Not quite, the BBC were in constant SMS communication with the police. The BBC received messages about the police heading to the house, and a “we’re going in” when they breached.

Also, Cliff Richard lives an a private, gated community. No press allowed (without residents permission) into the community, this is why they needed a helicopter, because they would have been trespassing if they entered the community.

This was part of the balancing by the judge. Since the entire community was gated, Cliff Richard does have an expectation of privacy even when standing on the street in front of his house, because it is a private road. There was no place, apart from the air, that a non-authorised party – i.e. a non-resident of the community or who lacks permission from a resident to be there or who does not have a warrant to be there – could have seen and filmed the events without trespassing. This wasn’t a case of the BBC crew being on the public street out front and filming what they could see.

Personally, in this case since no charges were even filed, I think that the BBC should have to announce short updates, in the same places, at the sames times (e.g. peak-hour news shows) with the same attention-grabbing graphics/headlines, noting that not only were no charges ever filed, but also that the person who made the claims is now under investigation for making false statements.

Wendy Cockcroft (user link) says:

Re: Re:

Yes indeed. In the name of accurate journalism.

Using journalism as a fig leaf for being a jerk to someone is not on. It’s bad enough if you’re a wealthy celebrity but when you’re not you’re screwed.

As I pointed out earlier, it’s not just the words that convey the message, it’s the perception created by the words, the repetition of the words, the added drama/sense of urgency of the presentation, the through-the-keyhole titillation of the use of the helicopter that provokes the “no smoke without fire, nudge nudge” attitude in the audience (by design), and its placement as a breaking news item. And the message is this: “Guilty, guilty, guilty.”

Give the man a trial first, for the love of due process!

Wendy Cockcroft (user link) says:

Reputation wrecking and the language of film

Sorry, Tim, I disagree.

** What is more questionable is the method of obtaining the information.”**

It’s the sensationalisation that was the problem because it turned the story of “Cliff Richard’s house is being raided” into “He’s probably guilty, you know.”

Monstering is a massive problem in the UK press. People end up getting death threats and all sorts because they over-react to sensationalist stories. The accuracy ain’t the problem, it’s the spin. The sense of urgency added by the circling helicopter is one of those mise-en-scene set pieces that plants in the viewer’s mind the idea that the accused is probably guilty and thereby violates due process. Why do you think cops are so damn fond of perp-walking? Same idea. This was a kind of perp wall.

So, later on, when they found nothing, where was the helicopter and the artificial sense of urgency?

Anything with CP in it is automatically going to make you look bad no matter what. I’m not a mad fan of Cliff but this was very, very wrong and should never be done to anyone.

Dave says:

Sensationalism for the sake of it?

Personally, I have to question whether all this high-profile publicity and raid (with expensive helicopter, to boot!) would have ever happened, if the subject not been a well-known “personality”, (I use the word loosely). I think the tipping off of to the BBC is pretty despicable. If any “ordinary” person on the street was being investigated, there’s no way that all that manpower would be deployed. The BBC did wrong, whether or not the person concerned is guilty of any crime or not and, as we know, Cliff was never charged. I rest my case.

Add Your Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here

Comment Options:

Make this the or (get credits or sign in to see balance) what's this?

What's this?

Techdirt community members with Techdirt Credits can spotlight a comment as either the "First Word" or "Last Word" on a particular comment thread. Credits can be purchased at the Techdirt Insider Shop »