The court ruling in favour of the supermodel Naomi Campbell was inevitably hailed as a signal defeat for the whole tabloid press or the precursor to a fully fledged privacy law in Britain. In fact, it was neither. The judge found for Ms Campbell and against The Mirror newspaper on the narrowest of grounds. Its ramifications are strictly limited.
The Mirror, Judge Morland ruled, had been justified in drawing attention to Ms Campbell's drug addiction, something that she had consistently denied. The paper was equally justified, he said, in reporting that she was undergoing treatment. Where it crossed the line into illegality was in reporting details of Ms Campbell's attendance at Narcotics Anonymous. This, he said, was confidential information that had been obtained "surreptitiously", assisted by "covert photography", and should have remained private. It was information that clearly bore "the badge or mark of confidentiality" and occupied a "space of privacy" to which everyone, even celebrities, was entitled.
The judge established a closely defined zone of privacy to which, he said, everyone had a right. Acknowledging that much about the private lives of celebrities and public figures would enter the public domain, he said that – in his view – it did not necessarily follow that "even with self-publicists, every aspect and detail of their private lives are legitimate quarry for the journalist".
Among the areas he singled out as occupying this "space of privacy" were details of illness and medical treatment, as well as intimate details of private and family life.
On the face of it, his ruling may seem to cut across recent court judgments relating to celebrities and public figures. The television presenter Jamie Theakston failed to convince another judge that press reports of his consorting with prostitutes were an invasion of his privacy. Prostitutes, the judge ruled, had no duty of confidentiality towards their clients. A – still unnamed – footballer was told that, as a celebrity and role-model for the young, he could not expect to keep his adulterous affairs private. The footballer's identity is still protected, pending a possible appeal. The newsreader, Anna Ford, lost her claim for damages in respect of published photographs of her sun-bathing on a public beach.
Each case, however, was decided on its merits. And slowly, out of this jumble of complaints is emerging a line that marks where public life stops and the "space of privacy" is deemed to begin. That line is still blurred. It does not define or even foreshadow, a blanket privacy law – and, it is to be hoped, never will. Such a law would not only hamper the legitimate, truth-seeking role of the media, but risk creating two information classes – those "in the know" (the elite), and the rest.
Some of the current confusion derives from the youth of the Human Rights Act: the courts are still feeling their way in interpreting it. The past decade has also been a time of great flux; social attitudes have been changing, and with them relations between the public and the media. The media's part in the national inquest that followed the death of Princess Diana also had its effect.
Amid all the conflicting signals from recent court rulings, however, one message comes through clearly. The reason why so many people are resorting to the courts is that self-regulation, in the shape of the Press Complaints Commission, has shown itself lamentably inadequate to provide proper and timely redress. Those with means are bypassing the PCC and opting for the courts. Unless the commission can sharpen, and then use, its teeth, it will slide into irrelevancy, leaving the protection of privacy exclusively to the courts.