Bullying Naval Officer Newspaper Stories Did Not Breach Privacy Rights

Payments made by journalists to public officials in return for information became the focus of one of the biggest scandals ever to hit the British media. However, the subject of one of the stories so generated – a Naval officer who was removed from his command for bullying his subordinates – failed to establish that his private information had been misused or his rights of confidentiality breached.

The officer was ordered to hand over command of his ship and to return to London after two of his subordinates complained about his behaviour. He was assigned to shore-based duties after being relieved of his command and, after an admiral expressed his severe displeasure, he was formally censured. He subsequently resigned his commission and retired from the Royal Navy.

Those events received considerable coverage in a national newspaper and it later emerged that the newspaper had a source within the Ministry of Defence (MoD) who had been paid about £100,000 over an eight-year period. The High Court found that the official – who subsequently received a 12-month jail term for misconduct in public office – was the probable source of the stories relating to the naval officer.

In dismissing his claim against the Ministry of Defence, however, the Court found that he did not have a reasonable expectation that the information provided to the newspaper would be kept private. His role as a ship’s commanding officer was very public and the decision to relieve him of that position was a matter of public record.

He could have had no reasonable expectation that those who had complained about him would keep quiet or that secrecy would be maintained about his abhorrent and shameful conduct as a bully. Although the Court accepted that the MoD bore indirect legal responsibility for the leaks to the press, it also ruled that they did not amount to a breach of his human right to respect for his privacy.

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