Is It Legal Anymore to Accurately Report News in the UK?

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Sir Cliff Richard wins more than £210,000 ($273,700) in damages after a BBC reporter got a confidential tip and broke news about a child sex abuse probe. "Breathless sensationalism," writes the judge.

"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.

According to the opinion from Sir George Anthony Mann, BBC reporter Daniel Johnson was tipped off about an investigation in the South Yorkshire area pertaining to Richard. The singer was under suspicion for child sex abuse that happened in the 1980s. Johnson learned details including an intention to search the singer's property, and the BBC was able to be there and break the news, igniting a firestorm in the local press.

Now, the BBC has been ordered to pay £210,000 ($273,700) in general damages plus an undetermined amount in special damages arising from the cost for Richard to retain lawyers and a PR firm plus the lost opportunity to publish a revised version of his autobiography.

So where did the BBC go wrong?

Justice Mann writes the police department knew the information was confidential and sensitive and shouldn't have leaked it. "From this Mr. Johnson knew, or ought to have known, that the information was confidential and sensitive," he writes. "It simply ought not to have been disclosed, as the provider of the information doubtless well knew. However, that degree of confidentiality is not a determining factor against publication. The press often performs a valuable function in disclosing information which others might wish to remain private. The privacy, and its degree, is but one factor in the calculation."

Johnson pushed for information from his sources by telling police that if he wasn't provided more, the BBC would publish a story about the investigation before Richard's premises were searched.

Justice Mann doesn't like that. 

"Mr. Johnson might regard this sort of thing as 'good old-fashioned journalism,' and in many circumstances there may ultimately be nothing too wrong about it when looked at in the round," states the opinion. "However, in the present case Mr. Johnson relied on a form of threat…"

That weakens the BBC's position, the opinion continues, but there's more to consider. Regardless of the law, there's the BBC's Editorial Guidelines that encourage its journalists to let subjects reply. Here's how Justice Mann presents this issue:

"Although the BBC did not know for certain that Sir Cliff would not be at the property, they knew it was likely, and certainly likely enough that they went to the trouble and expense of having reporters available to interview him (allegedly) in Portugal and Barbados. His absence abroad would be likely to affect the response time in respect of any statement. It then became apparent that his main PR representative, Mr. Hall, was also abroad. Mr. Hall adopted the view that he wanted to understand what the police were saying before he made a comment, and thought for some time (reasonably but incorrectly) that the BBC were trying to extract a confirmation from him rather than actually get a statement in relation to a broadcast that was, at that stage, likely to happen. He did not understand, or quite believe, that a broadcast was as imminent as it turned out to be. He had to work out for himself that the police were not naming Sir Cliff, and that would be a matter which he would need to feed into the mix before replying. His desire for further information, beyond that which the BBC had decided to feed him, before responding, was understandable. I do not think that the circumstances gave him a proper opportunity to prepare a reply before the broadcast…"

Although many journalists might regard this as BBC going out of its way to give the singer a chance to reply, not Justice Mann. He doesn't think the BBC complied with ethical requirements. Again, though, it doesn't tip the scales.

What about what was broadcast?

Justice Mann sees "a significant degree of breathless sensationalism."

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 media critic then adds, "In short, and insofar as it is relevant under this head, the BBC went in for an invasion of Sir Cliff's privacy rights in a big way."

In the end, the decision finds BBC liable for infringing Sir Cliff Richard's privacy rights when it disclosed the very accurate fact that he was the subject of an investigation for historic sexual abuse. Here's the full decision. The BBC says the decision is a "dramatic shift against press freedom" and says it will look into an appeal.

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