Drone hysteria and the serial privacy invaders of the British Press – Hugh Tomlinson QC


The news last week was dominated by the “Gatwick drones” with the country’s second busiest airport being closed three times in three days and 140,000 passengers being stranded.  On Friday 21 December 2018 a local couple were arrested “following a tip off“. 

Many of the Sunday newspapers on 23 December 2018 fell over themselves to reveal the identity of the couple with many publishing photographs of the couple.  The Mail on Sunday had the headline “Are these the morons who ruined Christmas?” while the Sunday Express had “Revealed: Gatwick Drone Suspects“. The Sunday Mirror and the Sunday Telegraph also had front page photographs of the couple.

But there was, of course, a slight problem: the couple were wholly innocent.  By Sunday afternoon, the police had released them, stating that they were “no longer suspects“.  This conclusion was, perhaps unsurprising, as the man in question (who did not even own a drone) had a cast iron alibi for each of the days of drone activity.

The police are now contemplating the possibility that there never were any drones.  This possibility should perhaps have been obvious bearing in mind the risks of “mass hysteria” in cases of this kind (and in the absence of any photographs of the offending drones) but it was not one which the fearless investigators of the British press appear to have considered or investigated.

The Mail newspapers have done a characteristic (unacknowledged) U-turn with today’s headline being “Clueless!” and with and the front page proclaiming “Innocent couple held over Gatwick chaos freed after 36 hours“.

There are obvious issues concerning the competence of Sussex Police but, more importantly, the press have, yet again, failed to apply the clear law that, before charge, suspects are entitled to privacy. As Mann J put it in the case of Sir Cliff Richard against the BBC ([2018] EWHC 1837 (Ch))

“on the authorities, and as a matter of general principle, a suspect has a reasonable expectation of privacy in relation to a police investigation” [248]

The newspapers who published the photographs of the couple can hardly had been unaware of this case – it was one of the most widely reported of the year.  They can hardly have believed that there was any public interest in publishing the photographs – bearing in mind the very early stage of the investigation.

It is not clear who provided the newspapers with the names of the arrested couple and the photographs.  It was, perhaps, the same “member of the public” who tipped the police off in the first place (apparently because the man used to play with remote-controlled cars before graduating to model aircraft and drones and used to “launch drones outside his home every Sunday afternoon“!).

The police did not regard this as a case in which it was in the public interest to disclose the identity of the suspects.  They have indicated that they did not provide the information.  The Sussex Police press office quotes the officer in charge of the case as saying

“It is important to remember that when people are arrested in an effort to make further enquiries it does not mean that they are guilty of an offence and Sussex Police would not seek to make their identity public.

The BBC quotes him as saying

“We would not have chosen in any event to provide that information to anyone… and one might say that’s probably hindered us in terms of how quickly we’ve been able to get to a resolution, in terms of them being released from custody.”

So where does this leave the press?  The comparison with the Christopher Jefferies case is obvious and it appears that, despite the Leveson Inquiry, certain newspapers have learned very little over the past 7 years.

In this, as in many other areas, the press is not in tune with public opinion.  They misrepresented the Cliff Richard decision  as an attack on press freedom and wholly ignored the subsequent YouGov poll which showed that an extraordinary 86% of the population favour investigation anonymity.

The large majority of the press remains unregulated with IPSO carrying on the toothless and ineffectual “complaints system” of the PCC.  There is no realistic prospect of IPSO launching an investigation into why an innocent couple were monstered by the press in the week before Christmas.  Legal action by the two individuals will not change the basic position in which the press invades the rights of ordinary people with impunity.  An unregulated press continues to “wreak havoc in the lives of innocent people“.

In the final analysis, the only solution to these issues is a system of independent and effective press regulation.  The balanced system proposed by Sir Brian Leveson [pdf] has been rejected the press which has persuaded its Conservative party supporters to reverse the promises made when the report was delivered.  Perhaps the new Government which might be formed in 2019 will have the courage fully to implement those proposals.

Hugh Tomlinson QC is a barrister at Matrix, an editor of Inforrm and the Chair of Hacked Off