Naomi Campbell, supermodel, novelist and mistress of the strop, is to attempt her most ambitious ever makeover this week - the conversion to champion of celebrity rights. Lawyers for the catwalk diva will attempt to persuade the Law Lords that she is a victim of press intrusion whose drug addiction should not have been exposed by the Daily Mirror. If they succeed, it will have huge ramifications for the media and could see a special right of privacy established for celebrities.
Campbell said she felt "shocked, angry, betrayed and violated" by the Mirror article published three years ago, which included a photograph of her leaving a Narcotics Anonymous (NA) meeting. Piers Morgan, the Mirror's editor, branded her a "hypocrite" because she had spoken out about drugs in the past. But the High Court sided with Campbell and in March 2002 awarded her £3,500 in compensation. In October the same year, the Court of Appeal reversed that decision. The Master of the Rolls, Lord Phillips of Worth Matravers, said the Mirror's coverage of Campbell's addiction was justified in the public interest. He said she had actively courted publicity and had been at great pains to tell the media she had not taken drugs, unlike other catwalk models. Now facing legal bills estimated to be £1m, she has decided to take her fight to the Lords.
While combat between celebrities and the media is hardly novel, this case is being heralded by Campbell's lawyers as of great significance. It will be both the first privacy case to be heard by the House of Lords since the implementation of the Human Rights Act 1998 - which incorporated into UK law the European Convention on Human Rights, guaranteeing freedom of expression and the right to respect for one's private life - and the latest in a string of deliberations on the Data Protection Act.
While the Human Rights Act has attracted all the headlines, it is the lower-profile Data Protection Act that may turn out to be the most effective in privacy disputes. The Act regulates the use of computerised information and grants individuals certain rights concerning personal data. The Act has had some bad press recently, particularly regarding the Soham murder case - Humberside police believed the DPA prevented their retaining information on sexual offence allegations against the killer, Ian Huntley, who was later employed as a school caretaker.
In the recent Court of Appeal case Durant vs the Financial Services Authority, the court held that the raison d'être of the Act is not as an "automatic key" to information, and that the mere mention of a name does not amount to "personal data" to which the individual is allowed access. This should significantly cut unmeritorious access requests.
The media fear that the Act may be used against them by privacy- hungry claim-ants keen to prevent the disclosure of sensitive information. Editors fear that figures such as Campbell will claim that the processing of such information is in breach of the Act.
Campbell could not, and did not, object to the Mirror's defence that its article was in the public interest considering her previous assertions of propriety. Her lawyers argued that the newspaper went too far in publishing details of her therapy and that it was being conducted by NA. The Mirror countered that this was just putting some flesh on the bones of the story, and indeed showed the action she was taking to deal with her addiction. Campbell's position was that the reporting of such matters was an invasion of her private life and a breach of the conditions of the DPA.
Mr Justice Morland agreed and said the article and photographs contained "sensitive personal data" that related to Campbell's physical and mental health. The Mirror could not rely on journalistic exemption under the Act as the material had been obtained surreptitiously. Furthermore, adopting a strict reading of the rule, Mr Justice Morland held that the defence only applied to the processing of data pre-publication - not the case here.
The relatively small award of £3,500 might not be a lot for a supermodel - although it would pay for at least a few hours of her lawyers' time - but the result was trumpeted as a victory by her camp. By contrast, the Mirror editor Piers Morgan was said to be "bored of the whole thing" but did summon sufficient enthusiasm to petition the Court of Appeal.
It was just as well for his employers that he did. On 14 October 2002, the Court of Appeal overturned the initial ruling. The verdict stated that publication of the fact and details of the NA therapy was not a breach of confidence but a legitimate part of the main story. "Where a public figure chooses to make untrue pronouncements about his, or her, private life, the press will normally be entitled to put the record straight," wrote Lord Phillips in his judgment. The court further found that the journalistic defence did indeed apply. A defendant was exempt from its statutory obligations regarding the processing of data where it reasonably believed publication was in the public interest, and where compliance would be incompatible with the special purpose of journalism. Advantage Mirror.
Keen to take a stand for others undergoing therapy - and no doubt with half an eye on the potential costs should she lose - Campbell is now looking for ultimate success in the Lords. If she does win, she will not only establish herself as a new champion of human rights, she will score a significant hit for those in therapy everywhere.
Amber Melville-Brown is a consultant at the London media law firm David Price Solicitors & AdvocatesReuse content