Judge rules release of television film showing would-be suicide was lawful

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The Independent Online
In a landmark judgment yesterday the High Court ruled that a council was within its right to release to the media a CCTV film of a would-be suicide. But the judge emphasised that important civil liberties and privacy issues had been raised by the case. Kim Sengupta reports.

Geoffrey Peck says his life has been shattered since a film of him carrying a knife, about to slash his wrists, became an item of public consumption for millions of television viewers.

The footage from closed-circuit television was provided by Brentwood council in Essex. It was shown on Anglia TV and BBC1's Crime Beat which has viewing figures of more than 9 million. Mr Peck's features were not properly marked and he was identified by friends, acquaitainces and neighbours.

The film, shot in August 1995, showed Mr Peck, 42, from Brentwood, Essex, walking along a street carrying a knife. At the time, the court was told, he was severely depressed. He has lost his job, and his partner Kerian, the mother of his young daughter, had been diagnosed as terminally ill. The film was shown on Anglia TV in October 1995 and on BBC in March 1996.

Both the Independent Television Commission and the Broadcasting Standards Commission agreed, that through human error, the privacy of Mr Peck had been infringed.

But yesterday, sitting at the High Court, Mr Justice Harrison dismissed an application by Mr Peck for judical review by way of a declaration that the council had acted unlawfully in distributing the film. His action had been backed by the civil rights watchdog, Liberty.

Immediately after the hearing Mr Peck and Philip Leach, a solicitor for Liberty, stated their intention to apply for leave to appeal, and if necessary take the case to the European Court of Human Rights.

Mr Justice Harrison said he had "some sympathy" for Mr Peck who had suffered an invasion of privacy which had caused distress and humiliation. The judge said it was a case with important implications for civil liberties and called for "effective guidance" to be given to prevent any future similar "undesirable" invasion of privacy.

He added: "Unless and until there is a general right of privacy recognised by English law - and the implications are there may soon be so by the incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights into law - reliance must be placed on effective guidance being issued by codes of practice in order to try and stop such undesirable invasions of a person's privacy."

Mr Justice Harrison said that although the council did have power to distribute the CCTV film to show the public how successful the system was for crime prevention, he felt that with the "benefit of hindsight" the council might want to tighten their guidelines.

After the hearing Mr Peck said he was disappointed but not surprised.

"It was a terrible thing to happen and all I wanted to do was to make sure that other people do not suffer the same kind of thing. My life has been shattered by what has happened. But we are not going to give up, we shall continue the fight through legal channels," he said.