The Court of Appeal yesterday put the concept of corporate privacy back on the agenda in the latest round of an important legal tussle between the BBC and the Broadcasting Standards Commission concerning secret filming by the BBC in Dixons stores.
The BBC’s “Watchdog” programme carried out secret filming at Dixons stores in pursuit of a story that Dixons had been selling second hand goods as new. Dixons said that by 1996 this practice had been stopped and the BBC could have confirmed this by basic research. Dixons complained to the BSC, arguing that the BBC had been on a “fishing expedition” and this was an unwarranted infringement of Dixons’ privacy. The BSC upheld Dixons’ complaint in 1998.
The BBC then applied to the High Court for judicial review of the BSC’s decision. In July 1999 the High Court ruled in favour of the BBC. Its reasoning was based on a finding that although privacy is protected under the European Convention on Human Rights, privacy could only be applied to individuals and not companies.
The Court of Appeal has now reversed this decision, finding that the BSC is entitled to uphold privacy complaints by companies. A company does have activities of a private nature which need protection from unwarranted intrusion. It would for example be a departure from proper standards to record clandestinely a board meeting or to broadcast private correspondence.
The meaning of privacy is notoriously “open textured”. The Court of Appeal considered that the BSC must have a wide discretion to decide on privacy issues and the courts should be hesitant about intervening.
The Human Rights Act will incorporate the European Convention on Human Rights into UK law in October 2000. Article 8 of ECHR enshrines the right to respect for an individual’s private and family life, home and correspondence. Yesterday’s decision leaves open whether Article 8 applies to companies as well as individuals, but for the moment at least broadcasters will have to tread more carefully.