Privacy and the Media
European court of human rights rules media should be allowed to publish stories about well-known people in landmark judgment
Owen Bowcott, legal affairs correspondent, guardian.co.uk
|Princess Caroline had complained that photographs of her represented an invasion of her private life. |
Photograph: Miguel Medina/AFP/Getty Images
The private lives of celebrities are of legitimate interest to the media, the European court of human rights (ECHR) has ruled in landmark judgments involving a cocaine-possessing German TV actor and Princess Caroline of Monaco.
The decisions by the Strasbourg court establish significant legal precedents for privacy cases in British courts, tipping the balance back towards freedom of expression.
In both cases the judges said that as long as the media carried out a reasonable balancing exercise, considering privacy issues, they should be able to publish stories about and photographs of "well-known people".
The fine imposed on the mass-circulation German newspaper Bild for reporting the arrest of the German actor on drug charges at the Munich Beer festival had had a "chilling effect", the Strasbourg court ruled. The "well-known" actor, who played the part of a heroic police superintendent, was referred to only as X throughout the judgment.
The UK-based Media Legal Defence Initiative was among groups that submitted comments to the hearing, arguing that Article 8 of the European convention on human rights, guaranteeing right to private and family life should not trump free speech.
Lawyers for Princess Caroline von Hannover, the daughter of the late Prince Rainier of Monaco, had complained that photographs of her represented an invasion of her private life.
Earlier judgments had supported her applications for injunctions against a magazine that used pictures of her and her husband during a skiing holiday. She claimed they had been taken without her consent.
But one article showed the couple taking a walk during their skiing holiday in St Moritz and was accompanied by a story reporting on the poor health of Prince Rainier. The German courts declined to support her complaints about that article.
In its judgment, the Strasbourg court said: "Irrespective of the question to what extent Caroline von Hannover assumed official functions on behalf of the Principality of Monaco, it could not be claimed that the applicants … were ordinary private individuals. They had to be regarded as public figures.
"The German courts had concluded that the applicants had not provided any evidence that the photos had been taken in a climate of general harassment, as they had alleged, or that they had been taken secretly." They were walking in a public place. The magazine, Frau in Spiegel, had not therefore infringed her privacy rights under Article 8, the ECHR judgment ruled.
Padraig Reidy, of the free speech organisation Index on Censorship, welcomed the decision. "The photographs of Princess Caroline were taken in a public place," he said. "The original ruling was extremely problematic because it decided that privacy issues took precedence over other concerns such as freedom of expression.
"The earlier ruling had been used as an exemplar of how to handle privacy cases in a number of British cases. It's great to see that the Strasbourg court has ruled that there was a violation of other rights in the original case. It tilts the balance back from privacy towards freedom of expression."
Caroline Kean, a solicitor at the London law firm Wiggin who specialises in privacy cases, said: "The [original Princess] Caroline decision was relied on by celebrity solicitors to seek to stop the publication of any photographs of their clients that were not approved, and though it was not immediately incorporated in our laws, was relied on by the court of appeal in the JK Rowling case.
"This does redress the balance and makes it clear that even if Caroline did not seek out a public role, having been born into the royal family, she is a public figure and therefore photos of her other than at public functions can be legitimately published."
It showed that the context in which the photo was published, rather than the photo itself, was crucial, she added, and that "the definition of a 'debate of general interest' is much more open and flexible than possibly appeared to be the case hitherto".
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