Hello! claims victory over Zeta Jones photos

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The Independent Online

Hello! magazine today claimed victory in its epic court battle over the wedding pictures of Catherine Zeta Jones and Michael Douglas.

Hello! magazine today claimed victory in its epic court battle over the wedding pictures of Catherine Zeta Jones and Michael Douglas.

The Court of Appeal allowed its challenge to a High Court order that it should pay more than £1 million damages and another £1 million in legal costs to rival magazine OK!, which had an exclusive contract with the Hollywood couple to cover their New York wedding.

Hello!'s appeal against the ruling in favour of the Hollywood couple over privacy and commercial confidence was dismissed.

But the appeal judges also threw out the couple's claim for more damages and OK!'s cross appeal based on unlawful interference with business.

Chris Hutchings, solicitor for Hello!, said after the judgment was handed down that the ruling meant that his magazine's liability to OK! was now nil.

He said: "This was a spat between two rival publishers and not between Hello! and the Douglases.

"The judgment is a resounding win for Hello!"

He added: "As a result of our win, Richard Desmond (owner of Express Newspapers and OK! owners Northern and Shell), will now have to write a cheque to Hello! for a very large amount of money indeed."

But a statement issued by Northern and Shell said the appeal court had "fully vindicated" the Douglases' action against Hello!

"This decision will impact all publishers with exclusive rights as it means rivals will be free to run spoilers with no redress in law.

"OK! will therefore be appealing this judgment to the House of Lords."

Hello! had admitted at a Court of Appeal hearing last December that the snatched pictures were published as a "spoiler" to lessen the impact of OK!'s exclusive £1 million contract with the Douglases to cover the wedding ceremony in November 2000.

James Price QC, representing Hello!, told three judges headed by the Master of the Rolls, Lord Phillips, that "spoilers" were a well-known tactic in the newspaper and magazine industry and his clients had been victims in the past.

"This was something previously not considered unlawful. We are in the position that if you are going to compete in this industry you have to publish spoilers.

"But what happened to Hello! was that it was caught by a law which said 'stop it' retrospectively."

The ruling against Hello! came after a six-week High Court hearing in 2003 at which the actress told how she felt "devastated, shocked and appalled" when she realised unauthorised photographers had gatecrashed her wedding at the Plaza Hotel.

She said she and her husband had signed the deal with OK! after turning down a higher offer from Hello!

Mr Justice Lindsay ruled that Hello! had breached the couple's rights of confidence.

He awarded the couple a total of just £14,600 but OK! got £1,033,156 for what the judge said was commercial damage to its expected exclusive coverage.

Lord Phillips, giving the ruling of the appeal court, said Hello!'s argument at the appeal was that once the Douglases had committed themselves by the OK! contract to publishing photographs of their wedding, it was no longer possible for them to advance a claim that events at their wedding were private or confidential.

The judge said: "It is quite wrong to suppose that a person who authorises publication of selected personal photographs taken on a private occasion, will not reasonably feel distress at the publication of unauthorised photographs taken on the same occasion."

The judge said the objection to such photos was not only that they convey secret information or unflattering impressions, they disclose information which is private.

But he said that when an individual authorises pictures to be taken on a private occasion and then makes them public, the potential for distress at the publication of unauthorised photographs was reduced and this should be reflected in any amount of damages.

Lord Phillips said that this did not provide a defence to a claim brought under the law of confidence.

He said the appeal court had recognised that the Douglases did have a right of privacy or confidentiality in the details of their wedding which were not portrayed by the official photographs.

"These photographs (unauthorised) invaded the area of privacy which the Douglases had chosen to retain.

"It was the Douglases, not OK!, who had the right to protect this area of privacy or confidentiality."

He said this was why the appeal court had reached the conclusion that High Court judge was wrong to hold that OK! had any right to commercial confidence.

Media lawyer Mark Stephens said later: "Scoops are the life-blood of a vibrant media and the Court of Appeal has effectively removed the ability of news organisations to keep the vibrancy of the media alive with scoops - and that is of real concern in this judgment."