Britain’s Supreme Court dismissed an appeal by Bloomberg on Wednesday as judges ruled that a person under criminal investigation has in general a reasonable expectation of privacy until charged, a decision with far-reaching consequences for media reporting.
Some media groups said the ruling would curtail public interest journalism as it set such a high bar for privacy cases.
Bloomberg reported in 2016 that a U.S. citizen who worked for a regional division of a listed company operating overseas had been interviewed by a UK law enforcement body as part of an investigation into allegations of fraud, bribery and corruption at the company.
The individual, named only as ZXC in the judgment, claimed he had a reasonable expectation of privacy and brought a claim for misuse of private information against Bloomberg – which competes with Reuters to deliver financial data and news – and sought damages.
The investigation is ongoing and no-one employed by the company, referred to only as “X Ltd”, has been charged with any offence, the Supreme Court said.
Bloomberg’s reporting, the Supreme Court said, had relied on a confidential letter of request sent by UK law enforcement to a foreign state that sought information about the individual. The letter was headed “confidential” and such letters are recognised as confidential by Britain’s interior ministry, the court said.
Damages of 25,000 pounds ($34,000) were awarded by a different court in 2019 and a Bloomberg appeal was dismissed by the Court of Appeal. Bloomberg appealed to the Supreme Court in Bloomberg LP v ZXC.
“The Supreme Court unanimously dismisses the appeal,” the court said in a summary.
“It holds that, in general, a person under criminal investigation has, prior to being charged, a reasonable expectation of privacy in respect of information relating to that investigation.”
Judges Nicholas Hamble and Ben Stephens gave the judgment. President of the Supreme Court Robert Reed, Judge David Lloyd-Jones and Judge Philip Sales agreed with the judgment, the court said.
Bloomberg said the decision would prevent reporters from doing their jobs because it removed appropriate scrutiny of companies and individuals.
“We are 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,” a spokesperson said.
The Society of Editors, which represents some British media organisations, said the judgment would have a chilling effect on public interest journalism.
“Not only does the ruling fundamentally go against the principle of open justice, but there is also a real risk that the bar is now so high for privacy cases that legitimate public interest journalism will go unreported,” the Society said.