Mr. Justice Mann opined that the press overstepped the mark when it reported a story on the existence of a police investigation which, at that time, was yet to result in a charge. A beleaguered Sir Cliff Richard OBE wept at the Royal Courts of Justice on the 18th July 2018 when the judgement was delivered. Unbeknownst to Sir Cliff, he was the subject of an investigation in 2014 while he was still assiduously pursuing his artistic career. The rummage of his home on 14th August 2014 by police was given wide currency, first on the BBC, and then swiftly on tabloids world-wide and on tablets and smart phones across the World-Wide-Web.
The devastation was instantaneous and ubiquitous. Sir Cliff claimed that both the BBC and the Police violated his rights both in privacy and under the Data Protection Act, 1998. His claims were substantial because his life folded and his finances crumbled. Two years deeper inside the agony, a remorseful Police force recanted. In June 2016, they announced that no charges could be brought against Sir Cliff. In May 2017, the Police accepted liability, apologised and made a statement in open court and paid Sir Cliff £400,000 in damages and agreed to pay his costs and paid £300,000 on account of that costs liability. But the BBC resisted. Justice Mann adjured that a citizen has a reasonable expectation of privacy in relation to an investigation that is yet to result in a charge and, as such, the right to privacy trumped public interest. The judgement speared the British Media tradition of factually reporting details of pre-charge investigations. The boundaries of British media law have been redrawn. Mr. Justice Mann ruled against the BBC. Sir Cliff Richard was awarded £210,000 in damages; £190,000 in damages with a further £20,000 in aggravated damages for the BBC’s decision to nominate the story for the Royal Television Society’s ‘scoop of the year award’.
The threads of every email from 2014 to 2018, tweet, text and WhatsApp message riddled with black-humour unravelled like a hand knotted Bukhara rug during the proceedings. Justice Mann noted that, while a reporter may not be a dishonest person, they seem capable of letting their enthusiasm get the better of them in pursuit of a story and twist matters to create a mosaic that could only be described as dishonest and permeated with tropes that arouse and excite the public. Human rights simultaneously claim to protect both freedom of expression and the right to privacy.
The privacy issues surrounding Sir Cliff’s case are not unlike those under consideration by a UK parliamentary committee inquiring into the democratic-crisis created by big data and the targeting of pernicious views. The committee has been examining the impact of online disinformation on political campaigning — and on ways to build resilience against misinformation into the UK’s democratic systems. The committee considered evidence on Russian state-sponsored attempts to influence elections in the US and the UK, of the efforts of private companies to do the same, and of breaches by Leave Campaign groups in the UK’s EU Referendum and their use of social media.
This inquiry is happening in the midst of exposures about the extent of disinformation and social media data misuse and allegations of election fiddling and law bending which have oozed like dense dark mud in the Devil’s Woodyard, around the 2016 US presidential election. Exposés about the cottage industry of fake news purveyors that have spun up to feed US voters, in addition to Kremlin troll farm activity and the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica data misuse saga with its widespread privacy violations are all drooling. Sir Cliff was exposed to trolling posts. He was trapped in his own home. He felt despair and hopelessness leading at times to physical collapse. He could not face his friends and family- or even his future. His life’s work was ripped apart and the adverse publicity on the internet and newspapers removed his status as a respected citizen. This is why the parliamentary committee is seeking to harmonize the hymnbook for all online advertisements and messages with those in use for published leaflets, circulars and advertisements as it relates to political campaigning and privacy protection in the UK.
Proximity does not matter anymore. Sir Cliff was on holiday in Portugal when the story broke. The lengths of distances are not obstacles any longer. Contiguity of cause and effect has decayed. Stories travel without itineraries, barriers or border control. Balancing the right to privacy with the competing right to freedom of expression remains contextual and cultural.