The celebrity magazine Hello! plotted to obtain illicit pictures of the wedding of the Hollywood stars Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta Jones and behaved dishonestly to disguise their source, the High Court was told yesterday.
Although the magazine had said the pictures of the wedding, in New York in November 2000, had been obtained on the open market, Hello! was later revealed to have begun negotiating with a number of paparazzi photographers several months earlier, it was alleged.
Publication of the blurred images in a "spoiler edition'' of the Spanish-owned magazine had caused "deep distress'' to Mr Douglas, 58, and his wife, Ms Zeta Jones, 33, Michael Tugendhat QC said.
Mr Tugendhat was outlining the case on behalf of the couple on the opening day of their action for damages against Hello! and its owners. The couple are joined in the action by OK! magazine, which had agreed the right to exclusive photographs of the wedding after the couple had rejected Hello!'s offer of £1m. Hello! say the couple had forfeited their rights to privacy by banning guests or anyone else at the wedding from taking photographs but then entering into the contract with OK!
The case will determine the extent of privacy to which celebrities are legally entitled. Mr Douglas and Ms Zeta Jones are expected to give evidence next week. If Hello! is found liable, a further hearing will assess the damages claimed, thought to be in the region of £500,000. Northern and Shell, publishers of OK!, are also seeking damages thought to be in the region of £2m.
Mr Tugendhat said Mr Douglas and Ms Zeta Jones had behaved "exactly as any other couple would have'' in wanting control over the wedding photographs. They wanted to choose not only the photographer but also which pictures would go into an album, which would be sent to family and friends, and, in this case, which would be published in OK!.
He said Hello! had authorised an advance of $10,000 (£6,000) to Philip Ramey, an American-based paparazzi photographer, in August 2000 for what was referred to in documents as a "special project''. The "spoiler'' issue involved recruiting extra staff, increasing the print run by 100,000 and chartering two aeroplanes to bring copies to England on the Monday and Tuesday after the wedding. "It was a covert operation of considerable elaboration,'' Mr Tugendhat said.
The photographs published were among a number taken, he claimed, by the photographer Rupert Thorpe – the son of the former Liberal Party leader Jeremy Thorpe – who shot them using a camera held discreetly at hip level. How he had got past the tight security at the hotel had not been established. At least four paparazzi had been involved, Mr Tugendhat said.
According to documents disclosed by Hello! it had paid $188,000 to Mr Ramey, Mr Tugendhat said, although there was considerable scepticism at the figure because of the value of the photographs.
When the couple and OK magazine became aware of Hello!'s plans, an injunction preventing publication was granted on the Monday after the wedding. However, Mr Tugendhat said, Hello! told lies to get the injunction lifted by the Court of Appeal in December 2000. Hello! had claimed that the pictures were obtained the morning after the wedding on the open market through their associate, the Marquesa de Valera. Mr Tugendhat said she rejected this claim.
Mr Tugendhat said the Hello! photographs, which were lopsided and blurred, were "embarrassing" and not what any couple would have wanted published. The hearing continues in London today.