UK Appeals Court Chills Press Coverage of Criminal Probes

Middlesex Guildhall in London, home of the United Kingdom Supreme Court. (Photo via Christine Smith/Wikipedia Commons)

(CN) — A U.K. appeals court that upheld a fine against Bloomberg dealt a blow to press freedom with its finding Friday that the subjects of a criminal investigation have the reasonable expectation of privacy.

The ruling involves a businessman granted anonymity by U.K. courts who sued Bloomberg over its reporting based on a leaked confidential letter describing a criminal probe investigating transactions with an unspecified foreign state.

Affirming a roughly $30,000 fine against Bloomberg, the Court of Appeal’s ruling today limits, but does not eviscerate, the ability of the press to report on a criminal investigation up to the point of charging. 

“The suspicion may ultimately be shown to be well-founded or ill-founded, but until that point the law should recognize the human characteristic to assume the worst (that there is no smoke without fire); and to overlook the fundamental legal principle that those who are accused of an offence are deemed to be innocent until they are proven guilty,” Lord Justice Simon wrote for a three-member panel of the court.

The 30-page judgment cites a 2019 ruling favoring Sir Cliff Richard, a British singer who sued the BBC for its coverage of sexual assault allegations following a raid on his home. The Crown never brought charges against the singer, who ultimately won a more than $250,000 judgment against the British public broadcaster.

“The fact of an investigation, as a general rule, will of itself carry some stigma, no matter how often one says it should not,” Justice Mann found in the singer’s case last year.

Lord Justice Simon allowed Friday that the “public nature of the activity” under investigation, such as rioting or electoral fraud, may defeat the reasonable expectation of privacy.

The panel rejected Bloomberg’s arguments surrounding the right to publish.

“While there is, of course, a well-recognized principle that the court should not substitute its own view for those of editors or publishers when considering editorial techniques, it is implicit in Bloomberg’s argument that editorial discretion should allow the publication of information in respect of which there is insufficient public interest,” Justice Simon wrote. “A recognized public interest in alleged corruption in the foreign state did not confer a wide authority to report on the contents of the [confidential letter of request], in which there was not a sufficient public interest to justify publication.”

Simon agreed that there may be a public interest in highlighting “any perceived inadequacies in the investigation,” but this did not occur in the Bloomberg article.

Bloomberg’s barrister Antony White did not immediately respond to an email requesting comment.

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