Attorney General v BBC [2022] EWHC 1189 (QB) – High Court considers what information can be made public about alleged MI5 CHIS

In a judgment handed down on 18 May 2022 the High Court has considered what information be BBC can publish in a story pertaining to the actions of a MI5 covet human intelligence source (“CHIS”).

The BBC alleged that X was a CHIS and had been psychologically and sexually abusive to two female partners.

The judgment can be found here: https://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/QB/2022/1189.html

The judgment is in two parts- one heard in public and the other in private. The private hearing was held to be necessary so that the Court could hear submissions about information that, if released to the public, would make the identity of the alleged CHIS known.

Mr Justice Chamberlian comments: “The court must be alert to the possibility of “jigsaw” identification. One piece of information may on its own seem innocuous, but when taken together with other information known to a particular malign actor, it may lead to the identification of an individual with greater or lesser confidence. The threat of jigsaw identification is a familiar feature of arguments against disclosure in closed material proceedings in the national security context. It is regularly deployed as a basis for refusing to disclose information known only from covert sources. But, although the court must be alive to the threat of jigsaw identification, it must also be astute not to allow the threat to justify a blanket prohibition on disclosure of any piece of the jigsaw.

at p.24

The BBC’s article on the case can be found here: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-61528286

The intial BBC coverage of this matter here: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-61508520

And details of one of X’s former partners’ legal action to be taken against MI5 here: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-61521569

Citation: The Guardian: Privacy laws could be rolled back, government sources suggest – A rebuttal

The Guardian has a piece suggesting, following the judgment of the UK Supreme Court this week in ZXC, that privacy laws could be rolled back by replacements to the Human Rights Act.

Following the judgment in ZXC a government spokesperson has stated: “A free press is one of the cornerstones of any democracy. The government recognises the vital role the media plays in holding people to account and shining a light on the issues which matter most. We will study the implications of the judgment carefully.”

Whilst political sources are usually careful not to criticise judges, the balance between freedom of expression and privacy rights of individuals is a contentious area, drawing critical voices from both sides of the debate. TPP advocates balance between the two competing rights.

It should be noted that whether someone has a reasonable expectation of privacy in respect of information regarding a criminal investigation pre-charge is still a highly fact-sensitive and nuanced approach. The court has set a general presumption. But it reflects a careful case-by-case approach in which all the circumstances of a case are taken into account.

The finding in ZXC does not to say there cannot be a case where criminal investigations pre-charge can be made public by the press. This involves a balancing of privacy rights against freedom of expression- the second limb of the well-entrenched test. Its notable that this second limb was not at issue in ZXC.

Therefore, ZXC serves to reinforce pre-existing caselaw, particularly following the Cliff Richard case, in finding that pre-charge details of a criminal investigation fall within ones reasonable expectation of privacy. This then needs to be rebutted by freedom of expression, and one would posit, public interest arguments.

The suggestion from the Government that “there should be a presumption in favour of upholding the right to freedom of expression, subject to exceptional countervailing grounds, clearly spelt out by parliament” is a dangerous one.

As the ZXC judgment rightly points out- neither privacy rights nor freedom of expression takes precedence over the other. The rights have, importantly, always been couched as equally weighted. Both rights are fundamental to a democratic society.

The government wading into such a sensitive process is concerning. Not least by touting criticised approaches to reforming the Human Rights Act. The safeguarding of an individuals privacy, allowing for autonomy, is as fundamental to a democratic society as a free press.

Examine the cases and a fact-sensitive highly nuanced approach to balancing the competing fundamental democratic rights of privacy with freedom of expression readily emerges.

Judges are acutely sensitive to this fact in striving to independently adjudicate complex matters of fact and law. The Meghan Markle case is one of the recent examples of where the balance between privacy and expression has been bought to debate in the public consciousness. The Brett Wilson’s Media Law Blog comes to the defence of privacy and the judiciary- an approach which TPP endorses.

To circle back around- ZXC has ensued a fresh wave of criticism in an area which has typically been at the cutting edge of this debate- the rights of those suspected of criminal activities. And, I add with emphasis here, at pre-charge stage without applying the second limb of the two-stage test.

Again the law makes a the critical distinction here. Open justice and public interest rightly hold sway at a post-charge stage.

And even in these circumstances balancing competing rights comes into play. In the right to be forgotten cases of NT1 and NT2, the right to privacy has evolved and reinforces the right to be forgotten where “the right to be left alone” presents itself.

And, as the court rightly observes in ZXC, where factors to be considered are drawn into lists, such as the Murray factors, these are non-exhaustive. This serves contextual approach serves as “a legitimate starting point”- it affords judges the leeway to take into account fact-sensitive nuances in cases and balance the countervailing rights. Because that is what is takes to safeguard both fundamental rights.

For those interested in this debate I highly recommend Hugh Tomlinson QC’s article in the Guardian: Privacy law: what’s the way ahead?

Big Brother Watch publishes The State of Free Speech Online Report

Government surveillance interest group Big Brother Watch has released an insightful Report entitled: The State of Free Speech Online.

The Report looks at crucial provisions of the English Government’s proposed Online Safety Bill, critiquing its impact on freedom of speech.

The Report in particular focuses on social media platforms and the impact of the Bills provisions on their ability to facilitate free speech.

TPP supports free speech unequivocally, recognising that in a democratic society both rights of free speech and the protection of ones private life must be carefully balanced and safeguarded.

The recent move of Facebook in removing the publication of third parties Australian news from its site in protest to the provisions of the proposed News Media Bargaining Code, in doing so lobbying the Australian government, serves to highlight the unequal bargaining position of online platforms and their extensive influence.  

Furthermore, Twitter permanently suspending then US President Donald Trump highlighted the ability of a platform to  operate at the highest levels as arbiters of free speech.

It serves to bring into sharp relief the need for proper safeguards and guidelines of, as the Report states, private companies who “wield power… comparable to that of governments”.

As arbiters of free speech companies such as Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and Twitter hold substantive sway over millions of conversations where the rights of free speech and those of privacy intersect. This Report is a welcome examination of the coming reforms in the Online Safety Bill through a lens of safeguarding free speech.

It argues that enforcement of free speech rights have been “questionable, inconsistent and problematic” across the platforms. It goes on to opine that such platforms need to mirror the rule of law and reflect human rights principles.

As English law moves to take the next step in regulating the activities of those online via the Online Safety Bill TPP with be reporting focusing on both sides of the free speech and privacy debate.

Tackling hate speech- Intersecting approaches and the Raheem Stirling case

The case of footballer Raheem Stirling provides an avenue into the oft-overlooked issue of hate speech prevention and deterrence. The adequacy of English law in tackling hate speech, a nuanced and increasingly difficult to isolate issue.  This is due to an instance of hate speech having the potential to cover a wide variety of legal actions and regulations. This in and of itself can be problematic; actions may not quite fit the scenario to which they apply or require careful adherence and scrutiny to ensure a just outcome. Continue reading