A rap on the knuckles

By Janine Gibson (THE GUARDIAN, 25/07/08):

Privacy is the new libel. Not that new: this has been going on for almost a decade now. Suing for defamation under the libel laws is dreadfully passé: libel is a lottery, it’s fantastically time-consuming and expensive, and there’s that annoying burden-of-truth issue. These days, if you live the kind of life that requires global coverage and said coverage displeases you, the twin tracks of injunction and suing for invasion of privacy are the only kinds of action to pursue.

The early adopters here were Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones, who ran a campaign more masochistic than anything Max Mosley could dream up to protect their own image. Most of us remember that case only for Zeta-Jones’s declaration under oath that £1m was not such a lot of money. Not so the celebrity lawyers, who light a candle under their framed Hello! wedding issue every morning in thanks for that couple’s folly. Most of them will be gratefully learning too that £1m is easily earned.

Since then, the crusaders for suing for intrusion have been a roll call of tabloid favourites: Naomi Campbell, Princess Caroline of Monaco and their ilk. Next up we have Ashley Cole.

Yesterday on Five Live, Bob Satchwell of the Society of Editors was defending – rather weakly, it must be said – the public interest aspect of the exposé of Mosley’s sex orgy dungeon antics, after the high court ruled that the News of the World had indeed breached Mosley’s privacy. He was being questioned by stand-in breakfast host Richard Bacon. Yes, that’s disgraced Blue Peter host Richard Bacon, exposed in a tabloid sting as a drug-taker and fired from BBC TV. What if Bacon had been able to sue for privacy? His career and the world would have been … exactly the same.

Some fine words were spoken yesterday by the editor of the News of the World on the steps of the court. Colin Myler declared that the press is less free today “after another judgment based on privacy laws emanating from Europe”. Referring to “guidance from judges in Strasbourg who are unfriendly to freedom of expression”, he declared: “That is why the News of the World will remain committed to fighting for its readers’ right to know.”

This statement may be aimed more at his proprietor than the public. Possibly the only thing Rupert Murdoch enjoys less than being beaten in court is being subject to the rulings of a European court. I’m not sure the Sun and News of the World recognise Europe as a continent, let alone a seat of law. But journalists benefit from privacy law. When we don’t want to reveal our sources, correspondence or rushes, we might want recourse to just those Strasbourg judges.

There are many joys to Justice Eady’s dry-as-a-desert ruling, not least on the nuances of whether participants who “indulged in same-sex action” when off the clock can be considered prostitutes. Ribaldry aside, however, his attempt to manage his own press is significant. “There is nothing ‘landmark’ about this decision,” he says. “Nor can it be suggested that the case is likely to inhibit serious investigative journalism into crime or wrongdoing, where the public interest is more genuinely engaged.”

He has a point. Nothing of any merit has so far been suppressed or censured through a backdoor privacy law. It would be foolhardy to attempt to paraphrase a man whom plenty will credit with singlehandedly introducing a privacy law, but isn’t he putting down a marker?

Just 24 hours before the Mosley ruling, Sienna Miller filed a writ for breach of privacy against the News of the World, the Sun and a photo agency over some pictures published of her on a yacht. It was as long ago as December when those papers last paid out to her over a similar issue. Even if what we are witnessing here is an epidemic of privacy cases, nothing has changed.