For years, vigorous reporting on the private lives of fames has driven newspaper sales. Now the media faces legal penalties and public analysi for intruding on famous people’s privacy. What modified?
In 1990, the TV sitcom actor Gorden Kaye, a household name for his role in the indicate ‘Allo ‘Allo !, was in hospital with serious thought hurts after a auto crash.
While he was recovering from intelligence surgery, a journalist from the Sunday Sport entered his hospital room, took photos, and interviewed him in his disoriented state.
Later he sued, but when the case reached the Court of Appeal, it ruled that there was no remedy in English law for a breach of privacy.
“It was a free-for-all for newspapers then, ” says Mark Lewis, collaborator at Patron Law who has represented footballers and other personalities in privacy cases.
‘Immoral and heartless’
Now, the tide seems to have turned. This week, newspapers faced a reaction after former rugby player Gareth Thomas received information that journalists had forced him to go public with his HIV diagnosis.
Then cricketer Ben Stokes criticized a front sheet floor in the Sun about a tragedy in their own families 31 years ago as “immoral and heartless”.
Lawyers say privacy rights began to change with the passage of the Human Rights Act in 1998, which introduced a claim to “respect for private and family life”.
The result has been a series of verdicts against the media, such as Max Mosley who successfully sued the News of the World for breach of privacy, after it had publicized pictures of him at an revelry with five sexuality workers.
Sir Cliff Richard employed the same privacy law last year to triumph his case against the BBC, which had pictured helicopter footage of a police raid on his house. He was never arrested or charged and the BBC paid PS2m to settle the case.
The phone-hacking scandal likewise showed that members of the public could be subject to the same intrusive reporting, with the revelation that missing schoolgirl Milly Dowler’s phone had been hacked.
But Mr Lewis says privacy victories in courtroom can be hollow for personalities, because the damage caused by the intrusion cannot be restored formerly the tale is already out. “Privacy is like virginity: formerly it’s gone, it’s gone, ” he says.
Where does the dividing line between free speech and privacy lie? Mr Lewis says every instance is unique.
He says he has acted for the status of women who says her former husband, a Dubai-based businessman, was trying to deny he was married to her or had fathered her child by applying privacy statutes to stillness her. “There are legends that shouldn’t be blocked and need to get out, ” he says.
But he indicates not protecting privacy can also have serious consequences. After the extra-marital affairs of former footballer Garry Flitcroft were revealed in the press, Mr Flitcroft said his father stopped watching his pairs because he was upset by the fans’ sings. Later his father, who suffered from depression, kill herself.
Paul Connew, a former representative writer of the News of the World and editor of the Sunday Mirror, told BBC Radio 4’s PM programme that editors rely on their individual judgement and taste.
But he says increasingly the public are having their say on social media. “The Sun have taken increased risk here. Look at social media, there’s a backlash, there are calls to boycott the Sun, ” he said.
“It may turn out to be a one-day circulation booster that actually loses more circulation in the days and weeks to come.”
The court of public opinion is also available the only one celebrities such as Ben Stokes can appeal to after their privacy has been invaded.
Mr Connew said press regulator Ipso is unlikely to take action against newspapers for digging up something that was already in the public domain many years ago.
But social media has also been used to undermine privacy laws. Footballer Ryan Giggs was called on Twitter after he took out an injunction intended to prevent an alleged affair becoming public knowledge.
The phenomenon even has a name – the Streisand Effect – where an attempt to hide information only stimulates it spread more widely.
It is called after the entertainer Barbra Streisand, who tried to suppress photographs of her Malibu home, merely to draw even more public attention to them.
Angela Philips, a professor of journalism at Goldsmiths University in London, who devoted evidence to the 2012 Leveson Inquiry into press regulation, said she believed the Ben Stokes story was an “absolutely outrageous violations of simple human ethics” on the part of editors.
“This story did not directly alter Ben Stokes himself, it was about his parents, who had no possible channel of being able to control the story, ” she told BBC News.
“It wouldn’t have come out had Ben Stokes not been at the high levels of his fame.”
She added: “This decision to turn upside down the lives of two beings was induced on pure commercial-grade sand. I think that the curve of fury on social media could very well turn out to be damaging to them in future.”
‘You’ve induced yourself a target’
Mr Lewis said celebrities now expect such a backlash, often led by the media.
“The law is very good now to stop privacy intrusions, but the practice is not good. If you go out and get an injunction, you can stop a story. But more than that, you’ve induced yourself a target, ” he said.
“Ask Sir Philip Green, does he enjoy having got the injunction? ” The retail tycoon gagged the Daily Telegraph from publicizing allegations of misconduct, including sexual and racial abuse.
Eventually he was reputation in Parliament, leaving him with a reported PS3m law invoice and the “bulk” of the Telegraph’s law costs.
Mr Lewis said: “He might not be as enthusiastic as he once was.”