Sir Cliff Richards v BBC: is publicity the soul of justice?

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 Policethe 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…

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Daniel Johnson, in front of Sir Cliff’s Berkshire estate

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).

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the (not very exciting) footage shows plain-clothes police entering Sir Cliff’s estate.
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Three gloved individuals appear to be looking through what is likely Sir Cliff’s office

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 [2013] 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 [2012] 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.

UEFA scores goal against internet giants to prevent copyright infringement

UEFA scores goal against internet giants to prevent copyright infringement

Union Des Associations Européennes De Football (UEFA), whose members include 55 national football associations, organises some of the most famous and prestigious football competitions in Europe. Recently, UEFA obtained an injunction against the UK’s main retail internet service providers.

As a substitute for paid subscriptions to sport packages through Sky, BT and others, some football fans are instead using set-top box devices such as Kodi to connect directly to streaming servers via their IP addresses. A survey for the BBC found that 47% of adults have watched a football match through an illegal provider at least once, with 36% streaming matches at least once per month.

Infringement in this way is on the rise for two key reasons. Firstly, an increasing proportion of UK consumers mistakenly believe using devices to access unauthorised streams is lawful. Secondly, most people know they personally won’t face charges for pirating illegal streams.

UEFA therefore applied for an injunction against the internet companies themselves, relying on the principle of “online intermediary liability.” Online intermediaries are companies which provide the infrastructure and data storage to facilitate transactions over the internet. Examples of intermediaries are search engines, web hosts, and internet access and service providers (“ISPs”).

Rather than go after private users, copyright holders – such as UEFA, movie stuidos and record labels – consider corporate intermediaries to be more viable targets for lawsuits. Accordingly, if online intermediaries have actual knowledge of the copyright infringement, they may be liable for the illegal behaviour of their customers and viewers.

Services of intermediaries may increasingly be used by third parties for infringing activities. In many cases such intermediaries are best placed to bring such infringing activities to an end. — Recital 59, Information Society Directive (2001/29/EC)

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Morality clauses and talent contracts

Morality clauses and talent contracts

As the year draws to a close, most of us will think back on the people and events that shaped 2017. Considered by many to have been one of the biggest stories of the year, it would be difficult to ignore the social (and legal) discourse surrounding the more than forty high-profile men caught in sexual misconduct scandals.

Last month, Netflix removed Kevin Spacey from its hit show House of Cards after Spacey was accused of sexual misconduct. However, Spacey claims Netflix cannot legally fire him because his contract did not contain a morality clause. Similarly, Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein’s employment agreement may have only a very “loose” morals clause that does not allow for his termination, so long as he pays contractual fines and any costs incurred by his company due to his behavior.

A morality clause is a contractual provision that gives a party (usually a company) the unilateral right to terminate the agreement, or take punitive action against the other party (the “talent,” which is usually an individual whose endorsement or image is sought) in the event that such other party engages in reprehensible behavior or conduct that may negatively impact his or her public image and, by association, the public image of the contracting company (source).

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Cyber security gets Hollywood makeover

Cyber security gets Hollywood makeover

Hacking is a major issue for many industries – but Hollywood is an especially tempting target. The new Entertainment Security Operations Center in Los Angeles hopes to provide a secure system for studios to control their valuable creative content.

HBO, Sony Pictures, and Netflix have all been hacked in major security breaches. In addition to embarrassing information being made public and loss of consumer confidence, infiltration can cost a film or television company big bucks. According to a Carnegie Mellon University study, films leaked online before official release can lose nearly 20% of their box office revenue. Furthermore, paid subscriptions for Netflix or HBO become less appealing to viewers if they can simply watch their favourite shows elsewhere for free.

Why is Hollywood so poorly equipped to safeguard itself from data breaches? Outsourcing may be partially to blame. Special effects, musical scores, set engineering, and technicians are often provided by independent contractors and freelancers. While workers could be brought in-house, doing so would be expensive and limit flexibility when sourcing the best talent. Unfortunately, many of these small firms and individuals simply lack the resources to defend against sophisticated attacks. As a result, the hundreds or even thousands of people working on a project’s creation and distribution become security risks. Continue reading “Cyber security gets Hollywood makeover”

Film workers’ rights to be restored as New Zealand announces repeal of controversial “Hobbit Law”

Film workers’ rights to be restored as New Zealand announces repeal of controversial “Hobbit Law”

Has New Zealand been too friendly towards Hollywood, at the expense of its own workforce? New Zealand’s incoming Labour Government promises to restore certain employment protections for film cast and crew, by repealling the controversial “Hobbit Law” within the next 100 days.

New Zealand is famous for being film-friendly. Gorgeous landscapes provide dramatic settings not far from the city comforts, and generous financial incentives are available in the form of government grants. Since the 1990s in particular, the country’s film and television industry has participated in many large, complex international productions: such films include The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings franchises, The Chronicles of Narnia, the 2005 King Kong remake, Avatar, District 9, The Lovely Bones, and – a personal favourite of mine – The Piano (pictured above). 

Earlier this year, Statistics NZ announced that the country’s screen industry revenue had increased to $3.3 billion in 2016, with film production revenue doubling to more than $1 billion. In addition to direct revenues, film and television content also promotes and enhances New Zealand’s “national brand,” with many tourists visiting the country specifically because of what they’ve seen on screen.

But has New Zealand been too friendly towards Hollywood, at the expense of its own workforce? New Zealand’s so-called “Hobbit Law” came into force in 2010 as a direct result of actors on Peter Jackson’s film The Hobbit threatening industrial action. Warner Brothers’ Studio suggested it would retaliate by relocating the US $500m production elsewhere, with Jackson mentioning the possibility of filming in Eastern Europe instead. To keep The Hobbit in New Zealand, Parliament passed the Employment Relations (Film Production Work) Amendment Bill 2010 to limit screen industry workers’ rights.

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Gunpowder on Primetime: were torture and execution scenes too violent?

Gunpowder on Primetime: were torture and execution scenes too violent?

The BBC’s new show has been criticised for being “unnecessarily gruesome and brutal,” with some viewers saying they became physically ill due to the graphic torture and execution scenes. Is portraying such violence necessary to better understand the historical context of 17th century England, or simply too much for Saturday night primetime television?

Tonight is Bonfire Night! The “Gunpowder Treason Plot” of 1605 was a failed mass assassination attempt against King James I of England and VI of Scotland and the House of Lords. A group of English Catholics planned to blow up the Palace of Westminster, following which the Protestant King James would be replaced by a Catholic monarch. When Guy Fawkes was discovered guarding 36 barrels of gunpowder beneath the palace, the plot was foiled and the conspirators were subsequently executed.

Londoners celebrated King James’s survival by lighting bonfires around the city, as a “public day of thanksgiving.” Although it’s no longer an official holiday, there are still bonfires and fireworks around the country to remember remember the fifth of November.

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GDPR Spotlight on media platforms

GDPR Spotlight on media platforms

Personal Data has been Hollywood’s rising star over the last few years. But will the introduction of Europe’s new General Data Protection Regulations steal the spotlight?

I had a bit of a migraine this weekend, so I spent the better part of the last two days on the couch watching Narcos and a few period costume dramas on Netflix. As I scrolled through the recommendations deciding what to watch, I smiled to myself thinking of how confusing my behaviours must appear to the algorithms used by Netflix. My tastes vary from watching FBI agents in 1970s Columbia, to Miss Elinor Dashwood in rural Georgian England.

Me Before You is apparently a 95% match to my preferences, despite being a film I have no desire to see. On the other hand, Blackfish, the whale documentary I’ve seen three times, is only a 54% match. Of course, Netflix only knows what my online behaviour reflects. And while it may not be perfect, when my behaviour is combined with my personal data, Netflix recommendations are fairly accurate most of the time. The advancement in behavioural analytics is big business in the world of media consumption – and it’s only getting bigger.

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