U.K. couple cleared in Gatwick drone investigation feel 'completely violated'

Gatwick Airport was operating normally on Monday, but the fallout from the shutdown caused by reported drone sightings continued.

Fallout continues after senior police detective suggests there may not have been any drones

Gatwick Airport reopened to flights Saturday after drone activity had shut down the airport for more than two days, stranding tens of thousands of passengers. (Peter Nicholls/Reuters)

Gatwick Airport was operating normally on Monday, but the fallout from the shutdown caused by reported drone sightings continued.

Police were scrambling to downplay a gaffe made by a senior detective, and the couple who were detained and released in the investigation said they feel violated and humiliated.

Paul Gait and Elaine Kirk, of West Sussex, were not charged, and police said they were no longer suspects in the case.

The pair made a statement televised on Sky News in the U.K. on Monday.

"As you can probably imagine, we're feeling completely violated. Our home has been searched and our privacy and identity completely exposed.

We are deeply distressed, as are our family and friends, and we are currently receiving medical care.- Paul Gait and Elaine Kirk

"Our names, photos and other personal information have been broadcast throughout the world. We are deeply distressed, as are our family and friends, and we are currently receiving medical care."

Their names and photos were splashed across many U.K. news outlets over the weekend, including a story in the Mail on Sunday headlined "Are these the morons who ruined Christmas?"

A media lawyer CBC News spoke to said the couple could be "heavily compensated" for the intrusion, if they choose to sue, because the laws in the U.K. prevent naming and shaming suspects except cases of public safety.

A screenshot from the Daily Mail's tweet promoting its cover story for Sunday. Paul Gait and Elaine Kirk were not charged, and police say they are no longer suspects in the case. (Daily Mail/Twitter)

"And if you do name them, you're liable for privacy actions. And if, as a consequence of naming them, you also diminish their reputation — effectively libel them — then you're liable for damages in libel as well," said Mark Stephens of the London-based law firm Howard Kennedy LLP.

While in Canada it is regular practice to identify people who are arrested, police in the U.K. don't normally identify people suspected of crimes until they are charged. Beloved British singer Cliff Richard successfully sued the BBC earlier this year for breach of privacy when it televised a police raid on his house. 

"And so what they're saying is unless there's some compelling reason that that should be private that you shouldn't be publicly humiliated in that way unless there's a good case to go forward."

'Unequivocally' there were drones

Meanwhile, Sussex police were compelled to insist the investigation into the perpetrators was ongoing after Chief Det. Jason Tingley raised eyebrows when he said it's a "possibility" there had not been drones in the area at all.

He was referring to the fact the reported drone sightings came from human beings, not from electronic tracking equipment that could provide independent verification.

Nonetheless, the prospect that a travel breakdown that stranded or delayed more than 100,000 passengers might have been based on mistaken reports of drone activity caused widespread consternation.

In a statement on Twitter Monday police said: "We can unequivocally state between 19-21 Dec there have been numerous #drone sightings at @Gatwick_Airport."

They said 67 drone sightings had been made by the public, passengers, police officers and staff at the airport, which is about 45 kilometres south of London, and that a damaged drone had been recovered.

It is not clear whether the damaged drone will provide forensic clues that could lead police to locate the perpetrators of the worst reported drone activity to hit a major international airport.

Police say it was found in the area near where the last drone sighting occurred on Friday evening. The drone is being tested for DNA, fingerprints and other evidence.

No easy solutions

British government ministers held a Christmas Eve conference call to work on plans for keeping drones away from airports.

British Security Minister Ben Wallace said after the cabinet meeting that the government has the ability to deploy anti-drone detection systems throughout the country. But he cautioned that potential public hazards and nuisances so far defied a quick, effective solution. 

"The huge proliferation of such devices, coupled with the challenges of deploying military countermeasures into a civilian environment, means there are no easy solutions," Wallace said.

The drone crisis led to a series of shutdowns at the country's second busiest airport over a three-day period last week that left tens of thousands of holidaymakers stranded at the height of the holiday travel season. 

The airport was operating normally Monday, but military equipment remained in place to deter and track any fresh incursions. 

With files from The Associated Press