Nine out of ten people will probably sympathise with England's football manager, Fabio Capello, who has received an apology from two newspapers after being photographed on holiday on a beach. The News of the World and the Daily Mail have also paid what are described as "substantial donations" to charities chosen by Mr Capello.
The England manager and his wife were photographed on a public Italian beach having covered themselves in mud. Evidently the process has curative properties. However, it cannot be denied that they did not look at their very best. Mrs Capello, in particular, had reasonable grounds for objecting to the publication of these pictures.
The Capellos were especially annoyed because they had previously made a request for their privacy to be respected while on holiday. On 17 September the Press Complaints Commission informed newspapers that the couple were concerned about the presence of photographers. Unfortunately, this did not have the effect they had hoped. On 20 September the News of the World published pictures of the Capellos caked in mud, and the Daily Mail followed suit the next day.
Both newspapers can certainly be accused of bad manners in running these photographs after such a request had been made. Why couldn't the couple be left alone on holiday? What conceivable public interest was served by publication? Nonetheless, the newspapers' apology is unprecedented in these circumstances. Ill-mannered and intrusive they may have been. The fact remains that it is not an infringement of the Press Complaints Commission's published code to carry photographs of public figures taken in a public place, and I should be surprised if it were illegal.
A few years ago the House of Lords upheld a judgment against the Daily Mirror for running a picture of the model Naomi Campbell. She too had been snapped in a public place, which was the essence of the newspaper's defence. But a series of judges found in her favour, on the basis that the photograph was presented in such a way as to show that she was attending a rehab clinic. This was judged an infringement of her privacy.
The author J K Rowling brought a case against Big Pictures (UK) Limited after a photographer had taken a picture of her child in an Edinburgh street in 2004. The child was too young to be distressed. Indeed, neither he nor his parents were aware at the time that he had been photographed. In the High Court Mr Justice Patten sensibly ruled that it is not normally an infringement of privacy to take a picture in a public place without the permission of the subject. He said the case of Naomi Campbell had been judged different for the reasons I have touched on. He did not think the child's privacy had been infringed.
However, two years ago three appeal judges took a different view. According to one of them, the Master of the Rolls, Sir Anthony Clarke: "If a child of parents who are not in the public eye could reasonably expect not to have photographs of him published in the media, so too should the child of a famous parent." The judges were partly swayed by Article Eight of the Human Rights Act, which upholds a right to privacy. J K Rowling's solicitor, Keith Schilling, said after the case that it was that "a major development in the law of privacy in this country".
The example of the Capellos on their Italian beach would appear to be different still. Obviously they are not minors. Fabio is a public figure, and he was photographed in public. There are no parallels with the Naomi Campbell case. Nevertheless, the Press Complaints Commission seems to have believed that the couple had a right to their privacy in a public place; and by apologising, and making payments to charities, the News of the World and the Daily Mail would appear subsequently to agree.
On grounds of taste I am on the side of the Capellos. Why not leave them alone? Moreover, Mr Capello is something of a national treasure, having revived England's footballing fortunes. We don't want him legging it back to Italy in disgust, though I suppose he would be unlikely to do so as it would entail giving up a salary of £6m a year.
But this case is not fundamentally about taste. It is really about the freedom of the Press. By all means let the Capellos ask newspapers not to run holiday snaps of them. But if it becomes an offence to publish pictures of public people in public places, one can imagine all manner of concealment. At the very least, such a measure might enable celebrities to present themselves to the world on Hello! terms, with all their imperfections airbrushed out. In an extreme example a politician might object to being photographed in public when publication would be in the public interest.
It may seem a trivial case, but I am sorry that the News of the World and the Daily Mail should have run up the white flag so quickly. A new precedent may have been established which takes us further than the J K Rowling case towards a de facto law of privacy.
The readers will decide if Lord Ashcroft is interfering
If the billionaire deputy chairman of the Tory party acquired control of two newspapers, I am sure there would be a terrific hullabaloo. Lord Ashcroft's purchase of the two websites, ConservativeHome.com and PoliticsHome.com has attracted relatively little controversy.
Under the inspired direction of Tim Montgomerie, ConservativeHome.com has provided an independent Tory voice for party activists. PoliticsHome.com is supposed to be non-partisan. Last week Andrew Rawnsley resigned as its editor-in-chief on the grounds that Lord Ashcroft is a paid-up member of the Tory party. Indeed, in recent years he has been its main benefactor.
Lord Ashcroft is not universally loved, but in my very limited acquaintance he is not the Citizen Kane figure some imagine. Some ten years ago, when I had not met him, I came to his defence after The Times, apparently aided and abetted by some dark forces within New Labour, had unsuccessfully tried to implicate him in drug-running in Central America.
But no one can deny that he is an immensely powerful figure in the Tory party – arguably too powerful for its good. He has reportedly given absolute assurances that he will not interfere editorially in either of the websites, and I am sure he means what he says.
But someone as intensely political as Lord Ashcroft, who evidently likes getting his own way in life, may find it more than flesh can bear merely to stand aside. If he did interfere, he would, of course, be entirely within his rights.
It is supposed to be a free country, and I am certainly not in favour of the Government deciding who can, and cannot, own newspapers or websites. In the end it will be the readers of ConservativeHome.com and PoliticsHome.com who decide. If they trace the interfering hand of Lord Ashcroft – and if they do not like it – they will simply stop reading them.
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