Private lives that even the tabloids cannot reach

Celebrity coverage is now a legal minefield, and papers simply don't know what they can say
Click to follow
The Independent Online

A most peculiar apology in Friday's Daily Star - it neglected to mention the reason why it was saying sorry - was the result of a flurry of legal activity following a story the previous day about Sienna Miller, whose recent exposure in the press has been concentrated on the escapades of errant fiancé Jude Law, rather than the actress's current success on the West End stage.

On the same day, The Sun had posed the question: was Ms Miller expecting a child? The Star had no doubts. Neither did the American magazine that ran the story the previous day. It was soon all over the web. ITV's This Morning mentioned it. As a secret, the possible pregnancy of Ms Miller, whose very public private life had been in turmoil since Law cheated on her with his children's nanny, was about as watertight as a sieve.

Yet representations by her lawyers caused the Star to back off and agree to a form of words in apology that must have totally perplexed anyone who had missed the original story. As one lawyer put it: "The whole privacy situation has gone barmy."

Those toiling in the legal departments of national newspapers are now scratching their heads and contemplating the suggestion that a normal pregnancy can be considered a confidential matter. The rash of privacy actions brought or threatened and the demands being made of newspapers by celebrities are, they contend, making the truth a frequent casualty in what has become a battle to keep readers informed of the news, big and small, momentous and trivial.

Cases involving first Naomi Campbell and then Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones were landmarks in the history of the press and privacy. What can be said now is that the conflicting interpretations of what should and shouldn't remain private make the subject a minefield for the press. This and the growth of "no win, no fee" legal representation have resulted in considerable growth in the privacy-based traffic heading for the office of a newspaper's lawyers.

Sienna Miller's grievance is not part of this scenario. Neither was the successful move by lawyers to prevent disclosure of the accurate and sad story concerning Countdown host Richard Whiteley's serious heart condition (he died the following day). But other demands in the name of privacy, often fuelled by greed as well as precedent, are of increasing concern.

The much-quoted article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights declares that respect must be paid to private and family life, home and correspondence. The Press Complaints Commission adopted the same guidelines and requires editors to justify intrusions into any individual's private life as being in the public interest. So far, so good. And judges do back public interest arguments - David and Victoria Beckham last week won their libel action against The People for suggesting that he had mounted a hate campaign against their former nanny, but they had previously failed to obtain an injunction preventing the News of the World from publishing the nanny's disclosures about their marriage. Yet obtaining such judgements is a lottery for which some newspapers are becoming less inclined to buy a ticket.

A senior newspaper lawyer told me: "It's a celebrity age and readers demand vast amounts of celebrity content. Popular newspapers live on it. But now celebrities have solicitors buzzing around them and the question of privacy has become a milch cow.

"You wouldn't believe the number of complaints that come in from footballers when the paper gets something wrong, no matter how slight. They demand apologies and damages and often they've got agents as well as "no win, no fee" lawyers egging them on."

It is some years since former PCC chairman Lord Wakeham warned that privacy would cease to be an issue only if "a once-free press had been subjected to such stringent laws and penalties that it no longer dare to report on matters of legitimate public interest", or the public loses "all interest in casting the odd glimpse into the secret world of the those in the news". The first proviso has been taken care of by muddle and "no win, no fee" assistance. The second seems unlikely in a climate where every cough and splutter of Big Brother contestants, let alone less savoury bodily functions, are devoured with the morning cornflakes.

There are signs that the truth may become even more elusive. In Ireland, where, as here, growing numbers of celebrities have complained about press intrusion into their private lives, privacy legislation is again being seriously considered.

The Irish Times reported: "Ministers have complained that journalists from tabloid newspapers have photographed them on private occasions ... and have on occasion sought to link them romantically - and sometimes inaccurately - with various people." Don't you just love that "sometimes"?

"Twenty years ago most of the privacy complains we get wouldn't have got it off the ground unless the information came from a confidential source, a doctor for example," reckons another harassed member of a national newspaper legal team.

Meanwhile, the legal year clattered to an end with the settlement of what seemed to be a vast number of libel actions - the Beckhams vs The People; Northern Ireland football international Keith Gillespie vs News of the World; movie star Cameron Diaz vs The Sun; a former girlfriend of EastEnders' star Steve McFadden vs Sunday Sport. Result: Celebrities (substitute: celebrity's friend) 4 - Press 0.

And in the wider newspaper world, Richard Desmond launched a gossip website, the Daily Snack, which promises "bite-sized news and gossip" prepared by one journalist who will collate content from the company's newspapers and magazines. It will be penetrating stuff, no doubt. Desmond, lest we forget, owns the Daily Star.

Bill Hagerty is the editor of the 'British Journalism Review'. Peter Cole is away

DIARY

You've got a nerve, Elisabeth

A sign of more tensions in the Murdoch family? Elisabeth Murdoch, 36-year-old daughter of Rupert, boasts on the website of her production company Shine that it is "the UK's leading television company". One wonders what her father, who gave her the kind of career break most can only dream of when he appointed her managing director of BSkyB Networks, has to say about this. Their relationship has been far from straightforward since she quit the family firm in 2000.

Desmond hits the Jacko-pot

A good start for Richard Desmond's new American version of OK! magazine. Michael Jackson has agreed to give it his first post-trial interview. Landing a fish this size doesn't come cheap, though. The singer will apparently be paid $2m (£1.1m) for his story, which is due to appear next week.

Unfolding drama

As the world waits with bated breath for the arrival of the Berliner-format Guardian, it seems that at least one of the big challenges facing the paper remains unresolved. This is the question of how it will be displayed by newsagents. Folded in half, the Berliner - known in the trade as the Betamax - will be smaller than a tabloid. At full size it will be bigger than a tabloid or a folded broadsheet. Marc Sands, marketing director for The Guardian, tells Marketing Week that the paper will be folded and stored in branded bespoke equipment, adding that "it's definitely a challenge, but we are talking to our retailers and working with them to come up with answers. There is no single solution but a range of tailor-made answers."

Not that Kanye

For those struggling to keep up with teen tastes, The Sun last week published a double-page guide to help you maintain - or rather acquire - some cred. But pity the poor parent who looked through the answers and tried to impress their kids with their knowledge of the rapper "Kayne" West, because The Sun sub-editors are not quite as hip as they would like us to think. The rapper in question is, of course, Grammy winner Kanye West.

Chemical reaction

There has surely never been a summer like it for big political jobs changing hands, and the musical chairs isn't over yet. Daisy Sampson's appointment at ITN means a vacancy on the BBC's The Daily Politics, where Sampson has added her charms to the Andrew Neil-fronted show. But who to succeed her? The chemistry clearly demands a woman, so will it be Julia Hartley Brewer of the Sunday Express or Cathy Newman of the FT, both of whom are said to fancy their chances? But they should both know that an internal candidate has not been ruled out.

Comments