Sir Cliff Richards v BBC: is publicity the soul of justice?
You don’t have to be a privacy or media lawyer to have heard of the sex abuse allegations levied against celebrities in the entertainment industry over the last few years. The investigations concerning Sir Cliff Richard, a famous British musician, included a widely-televised raid on his estate in Berkshire by South Yorkshire Police. Nearly four years after the BBC first named and shamed Sir Cliff in what is now considered to have been “sensationalist” journalism, the High Court has determined that his rights of privacy were infringed.
What makes this case so interesting is that it does not focus on defamation —that is, the publication (or voicing) of a statement which adversely affects another person’s reputation. Instead, Sir Cliff won his case on the basis that the BBC’s wrongful disclosure of his private information was an invasion of his privacy.
In Sir Cliff Richard v BBC and South Yorkshire Police, the Court considered if suspects who have not been formally charged by police have a reasonable expectation of privacy in respect of the criminal investigation. How are an individual’s rights to privacy balanced against the freedom of expression enjoyed by media organisations? That the suspect in this case is a celebrity only complicates matters, as it calls into question the importance publishing private details in the name of public interest.
Prosecutors said in 2016 that there was not enough evidence to justify criminal charges against Mr. Richard, one of Britain’s best-known entertainers, with a career spanning some 60 years. However, the BBC stands by their reportage of the allegations, and I suspect the BBC will indeed appeal this decision.
As if written for the stage, the Justice Mann’s 120-page judgement begins with a summary of key characters and the plot as it unfolded…
Daniel Johnson, an investigative journalist for the BBC, received a tip-off from a police insider in June 2014 that Sir Cliff was under investigation for historic sex offences against a child. In a manner some would consider blackmail, Johnson “exploited the opportunity to get confirmation of his story about Sir Cliff, and more details if possible” from the South Yorkshire Police (SYP). In exchange for Johnson not publishing the story immediately, the SYP promised that he would be given advance notice of the search of Sir Cliff’s estate. The raid was eventually conducted in August 2014, with BBC crew waiting at the gates and helicopters hovering overhead to capture the whole ordeal.
In case you’re wondering where the Beeb’s lawyers were, the BBC held a meeting to discuss whether to name Sir Cliff and when to broadcast. In her testimony, Senior Editor Fran Unsworth explained that “the legal risk was diminishing because they had got a lot of confirmation of the facts of the story”. The principal legal concern seems to have been in respect of factual accuracy and defamation, and not privacy – as “the lawyers had not flagged that up to her as a specific risk” (para 111).
The legal framework of Sir Cliff’s privacy claim is enshrined in European Convention on Human Rights, brought into force in the UK by the Human Rights Act 1998.
Article 8 sets out the right to privacy: “Everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence. There shall be no interference by a public authority with the exercise of this right except such as is in accordance with the law […] or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.”
Article 10 upholds the BBC’s competing rights of expression: “Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers. The exercise of these freedoms, since it carries with it duties and responsibilities, may be subject to such formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalties as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society [including those] for the protection of the reputation or rights of others.”
In instances where which both Article 8 and Article 10 are engaged, the Court has to perform a balancing and weighing act to ascertain which predominates. Neither article has prima facie precedence over the other.
Article 8 privacy protections arise only where an individual has a reasonable expectation of privacy. For example, if I have a conversation with my friend in a crowded coffee shop in central London, I cannot reasonably expect our discussion to be protected as truly private.
The 77 year-old singer told the Court that he suffered an “unbelievable amount of hurt and pain” after the BBC broadcast the allegations that he had sexually assaulted a boy in 1985. “It felt like torture, sustained over almost two years. It felt as though everything I had done, everything I had built and worked to achieve, was being torn down, like life itself was coming to an end.”
But one might wonder if, as a celebrity, Sir Cliff cannot claim to have an expectation of privacy. A certain amount of emphasis was given by the BBC to the fact that Sir Cliff was a public figure, and one who had promoted his Christian beliefs. Because Sir Cliff had been so vocal (ie public) about Christian morality, the BBC considered that his alleged sexual crimes against a child qualified as a matter of public interest. To that point, the Court acknowledged that in certain special circumstances, the public’s right to be informed can extend into private aspects of public figures (para 276).
However, Rocknroll v News Group Newspapers  EWHC 24 (Ch) upheld that a public figure is not, by virtue of their fame, necessarily deprived of his or her legitimate expectations of privacy. Axel Springer v Germany 39954/08  ECHR 227 also makes clear that the safeguard afforded by Article 10 to journalists is subject to the proviso that they are acting in good faith and on an accurate factual basis, and that they provide “reliable and precise” information in accordance with the ethics of journalism.
In considering the BBC’s argument that the stories about Sir Cliff had been published in the public interest, the Court disagreed, saying that reporters at the BBC “were far more impressed by the size of the story and that they had the opportunity to scoop their rivals.” (para 280) This echoes the findings in Axel Springer, in that photographs and commentary which expose a person’s private life cannot be considered to have been published in the name of public interest, if they were in fact made public only to “satisfy the curiosity of a particular readership” (Axel Springer, para 48). It is unsurprising in my view that Justice Mann “came to the clear conclusion that Sir Cliff’s privacy rights were not outweighed by the BBC’s rights to freedom of expression” (para 315).
Publicity is the very soul of justice. In the darkness of secrecy, sinister interest and evil in every shape, have full swing. Only in proportion as publicity has place can any of the checks, applicable to judicial injustice, operate. Where there is no publicity there is no justice.
— Jeremy Bentham. legal and social reformer (1748 – 1832)
Will this case have a chilling effect on media freedoms? Writing for The Guardian, Professor of Financial Journalism Jane Martinson argues that “as long as the media reports accurately – making it clear when a suspect is under investigation for a serious crime, rather than arrested or charged – there should be no bar to the public knowing what is going on.” However, in my view this fails to take into consideration the complexity of public perception. In his concluding remarks, Justice Mann cited “the failure of the public to keep the presumption of innocence in mind at all times” as an aggravating factor against the BBC.
Other criticisms focus on the point that this case provides an undeserved blanket of anonymity to criminals, providing a way to keep allegations against possible abusers secret. Whether or not there is a reasonable expectation of privacy in a police investigation is in actuality fact-sensitive question, and is not capable of a universal answer (para. 237). According to Police Guidance on Relationships with the Media, the names or identifying details of suspects of crime should not be released by police to the press or public, unless special circumstances apply — such as threat to life, the prevention or detection of crime, or a matter of public interest.
The inevitable stigma attached to the extremely serious allegations against Sir Cliff made the invasion of privacy even worse. When an individual’s good reputation is tarnished, even wrongfully, it may never be recoverable. This is especially harmful to celebrities, who rely so heavily on public favour. In my view, Sir Cliff Richards v BBC is not a sweeping new precedent that stifles freedom of the press: it simply restates the statutory protections afforded by the Human Rights Act within the context of already-established European and English case law.