LONDON – Britain’s highest court has ruled that a business executive who was investigated over suspected fraud had a right to keep his identity private — a ruling media groups said would make it harder for journalists to expose crimes by the rich and powerful.
The Supreme Court’s ruling that Bloomberg News had breached the businessman’s “reasonable expectation of privacy” is the latest U.K. court judgement to side with an individual’s right to privacy over the public’s right to know.
The case stems from a 2016 Bloomberg story that identified an executive and his company under investigation by U.K. law enforcement for possible corruption, bribery and fraud offenses in a foreign country. The news agency had obtained a confidential letter from the U.K. law enforcement body to the foreign state requesting information.
The executive, a U.S. citizen identified in court only as ZXC, sued for misuse of private information and won at Britain’s High Court and Court of Appeal.
Bloomberg appealed to the Supreme Court, arguing that members of the public were aware of the presumption of innocence and would not assume that suspects were guilty.
But five Supreme Court justices ruled unanimously on Wednesday that criminal suspects have “a reasonable expectation of privacy” before they are charged. Police in the U.K. do not identify suspects prior to charge, but their names often become public.
The Supreme Court judges said such identification could cause “irremediable and profound” harm to the individuals involved.
They said there was a “growing recognition that as a matter of public policy the identity of those arrested or suspected of a crime should not be revealed to the public,” and that this applied “regardless of the nature of the suspected offence or the public characteristics of the suspect.”
Bloomberg News said in a statement it was “disappointed by the court’s decision, which we believe prevents journalists from doing one of the most essential aspects of their job: putting the conduct of companies and individuals under appropriate scrutiny and protecting the public from possible misconduct.”
Bloomberg News editor-in-chief John Micklethwait wrote in an opinion piece that the decision “should frighten every decent journalist in Britain — as well as anybody who cares about justice, the conduct of capitalism or freedom of speech.”
The Supreme Court ruling follows several lower-court judgments that have strengthened privacy protections in British law. They include singer Cliff Richard’s successful invasion-of-privacy lawsuit against the BBC after it broadcast police raiding his house in 2014 while investigating an alleged sex assault. Richard was not charged with any crime, and said the coverage profoundly damaged his reputation.
Matthew Dando, a partner at law firm Wiggin LLP, said the latest ruling would have a “chilling” effect. He said the Supreme Court had “enshrined into English law a presumption of privacy for those being investigated or under arrest.”
Media lawyer Mark Stephens of the firm Howard Kennedy said the “definitive” ruling would encourage the rich and powerful to seek injunctions to “stop the revelation that they are being investigated for crimes or wrongdoing.”
Chris Frost, chairman of the National Union of Journalists’ ethics council, said the ruling was “the start of a slippery slope."
“The public has a right to know who has been arrested in their name, and those arrested should gain protection from secret arrest,” he said.