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Law Column: Drone chaos reopens privacy debate

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The treatment of a couple named and pictured in the press in connection with the drone chaos that struck Gatwick airport over the Christmas period has reignited debate as to how those suspected but not charged with criminal offences are treated in the press.

Last year, Sir Cliff Richard won a privacy case against the BBC over the broadcaster’s report that he was the subject of investigations into historical child sexual assault.

The ruling opened debate as to how the media reports on ongoing police investigations where no charges have been brought.

This debate was ventilated in the House of Commons, where Conservative MP, Anna Soubry, raised the question as to whether it was appropriate to introduce “Cliff’s Law” to effectively ban naming of criminal suspects by the media until charged.

The couple cleared by police in relation to the Gatwick events, Paul Gait and his wife Elaine Kirk, could, as a result of the judgment in the Cliff Richard case, have significant claims for invasion of privacy and damages for diminution of reputation, after being named and pictured in a number of Sunday papers.

Naming the couple also raises the issue as to the effect upon their online “footprint”. Here, their names will be associated with Gatwick on internet search engines unless such references are delisted pursuant to the couple’s “right to be forgotten”.

Legally, the Gatwick case raises the point again as to if and whether it is ever in the public interest to disclose the identity of crime suspects in the context of an active investigation.

If such a test is not met, newspapers may be exposed to damages for breach of privacy which are similar to those previously awarded in defamation claims. Certainly, the couple’s solicitor has been very vocal in claiming that his clients are entitled to substantial damages.

At the time the decision in Sir Cliff’s case was made, many feared that a can of worms had been opened insofar as reporting criminal investigations are concerned.

It seems these concerns could well be about to be tested. We shall see.

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  • January 9, 2019 at 10:49 am
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    There is no excuse for naming people before they have been charged. It is against natural justice. Sadly a lot of our population now seem to believe that if someone is being investigated they must be guilty. The disgusting way Sir Cliff Richard was treated in the the pursuit of a “story” is evidence how stupid this attitude is.
    The often claimed defence of naming is that local people would know who it was. That’s the point. A few local people knowing from street gossip is bad enough and perhaps unavoidable but thousands or even millions knowing can never be justified in my view. The Gatwick couple were very badly treated by the media and deserve compensation. Innocent until proven guilty. Remember?

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