BBC Fined £28,000 – a lesson from R (on the application of Finch) v Surrey County Council
The court was reviewing the decision by Surrey County Council to grant planning permission to UK Oil and Gas to carry out “fracking” operations at a site in Surrey. The recording was then used by South East Today as an ‘establishing shot’ on its early evening and late-night programmes.
Since 1925 it has been an offence to take photographs, videos or other recordings in court, and to transmit or publish them.
In proceedings initiated by the court, the High Court fined the BBC £28,000 for contempt of court, having found it to have committed at least two criminal offences. The BBC admitted the offences and the contempt. It is believed to be the first time the court has penalised a broadcaster for recording and then showing footage from a remote hearing.
The court heard that the BBC had recorded the proceedings via Teams, rather than in person, and the BBC recorded most of a morning’s proceedings.
In setting this level of fine, Lady Justice Andrews and Mr Justice Warby noted that it was of very little mitigation that proceedings were being conducted remotely, given journalists operate in a world where remote platforms had become the new norm. Further, the court found that it was an aggravating factor that the BBC was the principal news provider in the UK and therefore should be held to the high standards that were rightly expected of it.
It was noted that the BBC had mitigated its conduct by acting quickly to address the problem once it had come to light, removing the offending material and circulating a memo to journalists to remind them of the legal position. Without that mitigating conduct, the court indicated that the fine would have been £40,000 – £45,000.
In its judgment, the court found that none of the journalists concerned “would have dreamed of making a video or audio recording inside the courtroom. It should have been obvious to them that the fact that it was possible to view the proceedings remotely made no difference”.
Clearly, most companies do not have the same publishing power as the BBC, however, there is a lesson here for all court users in an era where remote meetings on Zoom and Teams have become the new normal: remote hearings should be afforded the same level of formality and respect as physical hearings.
For further advice on contempt of court and remote hearings, Ben Brown at email@example.com or call 0114 290 6254.