Lawyers Make Hay With Pop Icon’s BBC Privacy Win

(Bloomberg) -- It took less than a week for British lawyers to push pop icon Cliff Richard’s legal victory against the BBC into a privacy argument for mysterious millionaires.

For the media, the July 18 ruling highlighted new limits when reporting the early stages of a police investigation against celebrities. But lawyers brandishing copies of the judgment are already using the decision in their fight to keep secret how a convicted foreign official and his wife amassed their wealth.

Lawyers Make Hay With Pop Icon’s BBC Privacy Win

Richard won substantial damages against the British Broadcasting Corp. for its coverage of a 2014 police raid on his home following allegations of child sex assault about 30 years ago. Ultimately, the singer’s right to privacy trumped the freedom of the press to report the early stage of an investigation, Judge Anthony Mann said in his judgment.

"It confirms that this must be the starting position while the police are still gathering evidence," said Robert Conway, a criminal defense lawyer at Vardags.

The judge acknowledged that the case could have a "significant impact on press reporting," saying that the BBC invaded Richard’s "privacy rights in a big way." So much so that lawyers who work with media organizations were quick to criticize the ruling, warning that even if an investigation became public through a police raid, individuals can still expect that they won’t be identified.

$275,000 Award

Richard was awarded at least 210,000 pounds ($275,000) in damages, one of the highest sums ever awarded in a U.K. privacy case. The singer was under investigation by the police for almost two years before they informed him he wouldn’t face charges.

Still, other lawyers said that it wasn’t a precedent-setting shift.

“It is a case that very much turns on its facts," said David Malone, a criminal barrister at Red Lion Chambers. "The judgment was not a blanket ban on reporting names."

Attorneys in other cases, however, are attempting to use the decision to fight the U.K. crime agency’s new powers to force suspects to explain how they amassed their wealth. The tools were put in place to help prosecutors chase assets that are thought to have been gained through crime.

The week after the Richard ruling, lawyers for the wife of a mystery banker facing an unexplained wealth order tried to lock the press out of a three-day hearing. As the judge patiently heard from the press requesting the hearing stay in public, a BBC journalist stood up to make eloquent arguments. No sooner had he sat down then James Lewis, a lawyer for the mysterious applicant, produced two pristine copies of the Richard decision with a wink and a smile in the direction of the journalist.

"There’s an argument for anonymity in all cases of a criminal nature, before someone is charged," Vardags’s Conway said.

The ruling adds to a series of decisions by judges over the limits that media face in reporting names under investigation. Judge Brian Leveson, who chaired a 2011-2012 inquiry into phone hacking by journalists, said "the names of those who are arrested or suspected of a crime should not be released to the press."

The BBC, which is attempting to appeal the Richard decision, said the ruling will make it harder to scrutinize the conduct of the police. The judge failed to take into account the fact that when media report police investigations, including the names of the suspects, it can encourage further witnesses to come forward, the broadcaster said.

"There’s a real possibility of Court of Appeal judges coming to a different view," said Mark Stephens, a media lawyer at Howard Kennedy who represents many publishers, including Bloomberg News.

Hugh Tomlinson, a lawyer who worked with victims of phone hacking, said the ruling reminds the media of the importance of privacy and “the need to establish genuine public interest before the publication of private information can be justified."

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