Bloomberg has been ordered to pay £25,000 in damages to a US businessman over an article which revealed details of an ongoing criminal investigation into him taken from a leaked confidential letter.
The chief executive, who the court ordered must remain anonymous, has won a claim against the business news website in the UK for misuse of private information.
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A High Court judge also ordered an injunction to be put in place, even though the article has been online since 2016, saying it “represents the remedy that naturally follows from the court’s decision that the information should not have been published”.
In his judgment, Mr Justice Nicklin referred to Sir Cliff Richard’s privacy win against the BBC last year and a body of case law which he said shows “in general a person does have a reasonable expectation of privacy in a police investigation up to the point of charge”.
Bloomberg identified the businessman in its article and revealed details of an investigation into him.
According to the court judgment, he worked for a company where “the integrity of some transactions” in which it was involved “had been publicly questioned for a number of years”.
The information published by Bloomberg came from a confidential letter of request to a foreign state from a UK law-enforcement body, which was investigating possible offences of corruption, bribery and offences under the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 and the Fraud Act 2000 in relation to the claimant’s company and a number of named individuals, including him.
The article included details of the activity being investigated, including whether the businessman had been involved in corruption in relation to his company’s activities in the foreign country.
The letter had asked the authorities of that country to provide banking and business records relating to him.
The claimant argued that he had a reasonable expectation of privacy in relation to this information, a view supported by Mr Justice Nicklin in the High Court in a judgment handed down on 17 April.
The judge said that although the claimant held a senior position in the company, “he was not a director of the company and he did not discharge any public (as opposed to private) function – he was not a politician, for example”.
Mr Justice Nicklin acknowledged that the claimant was not seeking to stop Bloomberg itself publishing details of his alleged conduct, but said his reasonable expectation of privacy was over confidential details of the investigation as set out in the letter of request.
Bloomberg’s public interest claim
Bloomberg argued that there is a strong public interest in reporting on investigations by the law enforcement body generally and specifically into companies like the one involved in this case.
It added: “It is constructive for information about this subject matter to be reported so that there is a wider consciousness and concern about corruption in [the relevant country] and so that the consequences for individuals may act as a deterrent for others.”
The news organisation also argued that although the investigation had been ongoing for some time, no-one had been charged and there is a “strong public interest in reporting the scope, direction, investigative steps taken and progress of the investigation”.
It added: “Such reporting ensures accountability and may encourage other witnesses to come forward to assist the investigation.”
It also said the businessman had publicly connected himself with the company’s transactions during the period of alleged wrongdoing.
An interim injunction request was denied two years ago, but Mr Justice Nicklin has now said the outcome of this application may have been very different if the then judge had been provided with a copy of the confidential letter.
However Bloomberg had not yet made clear it was in possession of the letter itself, having only reported that its journalist had been “shown” the document.
Deciding the level of damages to award, the judge noted that the truth or falsity of the underlying in the letter was not relevant.
He said: “In my judgment, the consequence of that is, whilst [the claimant] can legitimately rely upon the distress and embarrassment that he has felt as a result of the publication of the information, he cannot be awarded any element of purely reputational damages.”
The claimant told the court he was “outraged” by the article’s publication, which informed the world that he was a suspect in a criminal investigation and is liable to be reported in “due diligence” reports.
“He feels that the fact that the article has remained online has had a negative impact on his family life,” the judgment went on. “The fact that his wife has been upset by it has also angered the claimant.”
The judge added: “I accept that the claimant has been caused significant distress and anger by the publication of the information and that it has negatively impacted his dignity and standing. The continued publication of the information has aggravated that position…”
He went on to note that the reported information was “highly confidential” and disclosed the views of the law enforcement body on his alleged criminality.
“The information was not limited to the fact that the claimant was being investigated for possible involvement in serious criminal offences, it contained specific details as to the views of [the body] on the evidence they had collected so far in their investigation and the degree to which it implicated the claimant.
“Because the information was never intended to be published… it was by its nature entirely one-sided.”
Only one other mainstream media organisation picked up the story.
Mr Justice Nicklin said: “The presentation of the information in the article was not sensationalist; it was serious and measured.
“On the one hand, that has reduced the distress that the claimant might have been caused had the presentation been different, but on the other the source of the information [the law enforcement body] meant that the information would be regarded as credible and therefore adds to the concern of the claimant as to the lasting impact the disclosure of the information may have on him.”
He concluded that £25,000 was an appropriate figure for damages.
A Bloomberg spokesperson told Press Gazette the company is seeking leave to appeal.
Picture: Nigel Young/Foster+Partners