A businessman suspected of fraud wins the right to privacy against news media

The U.K. Supreme Court ruled that Bloomberg News didn’t respect a “reasonable expectation of privacy” by publicly revealing that an American businessman was under investigation for suspicions of fraud, bribery and corruption. Bloomberg considers the decision prevents journalists from fulfilling their core mission of informing the public.

UK Supreme Court
British Supreme Court building

The Supreme Court of the United Kingdom ruled on February 16 that a business executive under investigation for alleged fraud and corruption had a right to keep his identity private.

The highest jurisdiction of Britain considered that Bloomberg News had breached the “reasonable expectation of privacy” of the U.S.-citizen business executive. The decision was unanimous among the five judges.

This is the latest court judgment in the U.K. to side with an individual’s right to privacy over the public’s right to know. Such decisions could make it harder for journalists to expose crimes by powerful people.

In 2016, Bloomberg identified in a story a businessman and his company under investigation by U.K. law enforcement. Authorities suspected corruption, bribery and fraud offenses in a foreign country.

And the news agency revealed the information as it obtained a confidential letter from the U.K. law enforcement body to the foreign state. It published an article referring to the fact that information regarding the businessman had been requested and detailing what he was being investigated for.

The American executive was identified in court only as ZXC. He sued for misuse of private information and first won at Britain’s High Court and Court of Appeal.

Identity of those arrested should not be public according to British Supreme Court

But Bloomberg appealed to the Supreme Court. The company argued the public was aware of the presumption of innocence and would not assume a suspect was guilty.

It didn’t convince Supreme Court judges who considered that identifying people before they are charged can could cause “irremediable and profound” harm to the individuals involved.

There is 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, which would apply “regardless of the nature of the suspected offense or the public characteristics of the suspect,” judges said.

Police don’t publicly identify suspects before they are charged in the U.K. although their names often become public.

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.”

Chairman of the National Union of Journalists’ ethics council, Chris Frost 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.”

Matthew Dando, a partner at law firm Wiggin LLP, said the latest ruling would have a “chilling” effect as the Supreme Court had “enshrined into English law a presumption of privacy for those being investigated or under arrest.”

Read more about the United Kingdom

Bloomberg LP (Appellant) v ZXC (Respondent), U.K. Supreme Court, February 2022, Free access

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