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BBC fined for contempt of court: a salutary lesson for court users in the age of Zoom and Teams


It was commonplace 100 years ago for photographs to be taken in and around court rooms and published in the press. However, the practice became controversial, and since 1925 it has been an offence to take photographs, videos or other recordings in court, and to transmit or publish them.

In November 2020, the BBC made a video and audio recording of a hearing in the Planning Court in London at which the court was reviewing the controversial 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 BBC then used a six second "scene-setting" clip from the court footage in two of its BBC South East Today evening news bulletins.  All of this was done without the court's consent.

Last week, 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. 

The court hearing that the BBC had recorded was conducted via Teams, rather than in person, and the BBC recorded most of a morning's proceedings. The High Court noted that the six seconds of footage used in the news report was "of a conventional remote meeting with the Judge, solicitors, counsel and other participants shown in boxes in a gallery on the screen".

The court fined the BBC £28,000 for contempt of court. In setting this level of fine, the court found that it was an aggravating factor that the BBC was the principal news provider in the UK and the contempt was a departure from the high standards that were rightly expected of it. However, the BBC had mitigated its conduct by acting quickly to address the problem once it had come to light, and senior personnel had taken the case extremely seriously by removing the offending material and circulating a memo to journalists to remind them of the legal position. Without that mitigating conduct, the fine would have been £40,000 - £45,000.

In its pragmatic 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". There is a salutary lesson here for all court users in this 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.

The High Court's full decision in R (on the application of Finch) v Surrey County Council [2021] EWHC 170 (QB) (3 February 2021) can be found here.


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