BBC reporting of court proceedings a “catalogue of serious errors”

08 Feb 2021

The BBC has been fined £28,000 for contempt of court for making an unauthorised recording of court proceedings, and for broadcasting a short extract from that recording in two news bulletins on 17 November 2020. The fine would have been £40-45,000 but for the BBC’s prompt and complete apology, and acknowledgment of fault. So decided the Divisional Court in contempt proceedings brought of the court’s own motion, arising out of the planning judicial review R (Finch) v Surrey County Council [2020] EWHC 3566 (Admin)[1] about which I have previously posted.

The Divisional Court’s judgment, released on 3 February 2021 with neutral citation [2021] EWHC 170 (QB), is available HERE and makes interesting reading for all those who use the courts, indeed anyone interested in the administration of justice. What had the BBC done? Recorded and broadcast part of a judicial review hearing: A short 6 second video clip taken from the BBC’s unauthorised recording of half a day in the virtual courtroom was used as “wallpaper”, to set the scene for the journalist’s report.

The judgment begins with a concise outline of the statutory prohibitions on making recordings, beginning with s.41 of the Criminal Justice Act 1925 (still in force with a maximum penalty of £1000), and ending with s.85B of the Courts Act 2003, as introduced by the Coronavirus Act 2020.

Of particular note, the statutory offences (summary only) committed by the BBC were elevated to the more serious charge of contempt of court without opposition from the BBC, and without much (if any) analysis by the court [paragraphs 3 and 60]. The court went on to consider the harm caused by the contempt and the culpability of the BBC, finding:

(1)   The harm caused by the recording was at the low end of the scale, being limited to the finding that “illegal photography will in general interfere with the proper administration of justice through the very fact that it defies the criminal law relating to the administration of justice.” [paragraph 67].

(2)   However, the BBC should have done earlier what it did in the wake of these broadcasts [paragraph 78]. There was “a catagloue of serious errors by a number of people that should have been, but were not picked up by any of the internal systems and safeguards that were put in place to regulate what is broadcast.” [paragraph 70]. As the nation’s public service broadcaster, clearly the BBC should have known better.

This case illustrates just how seriously the senior Judiciary are taking the risks to the administration of justice that are associated with loss of control over the recording and transmission of court proceedngs. In some cases, a recording may be authorised by the Judge in response to an application. Legal advisers should ensure that their clients know the statutory restrictions on recordings of all kinds, and the risk of substantial penalties for contravention.


[1] In those proceedings Harriet Townsend acted for the Defendant, leading Alex Williams. Estelle Dehon acted for the Claimant, led by Marc Willers QC. Include links to earlier posts on this issue and on the judgment in that case?