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Privacy, The Law And Press Behaviour

15/11/2016 13:53 | Updated 18 November 2016
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My favourite reaction to Prince Harry's recent complaint about press treatment of his girlfriend came from comedian Katherine Ryan: "#SoRelatable when ur dating a guy & unsure if he's bae but then his palace sends out a letter warning the press not to be racist about you".

Katherine Ryan is right, of course, that most people don't have the kind of resources at their disposal that Prince Harry does. Most of the headlines around press intrusion have been dominated by famous names. You'll know these ones: Angelina Jolie, JK Rowling, Charlotte Church, Steve Coogan and Jude Law. The name Sheila Henry, the mother of 26 year old Christian Small, who died in the King's Cross 7/7 bomb blast, may not be on the tip of your tongue. Yet, they're all equal on that great level playing field called 'victims of alleged phone hacking'. Just six names from the three hundred plus list which emerged when the British Press found itself in the dock, during the Leveson inquiry 4 years ago.

Using a moral microscope, Lord Justice Leveson and his team scrutinised every aspect of the British press culture, practices and ethics. They were found wanting. Fast forward to 2016, and we're on the brink of getting the first officially recognised UK press regulator. Called 'Impress', it's got the thumbs up from those campaigning for a 'free and accountable press'. Most newspapers, though, have signed up to rival, Ipso.

Funded by those it represents, Ipso claims it's been rigorously regulating UK newspapers, magazines and news websites for the last two years. Hmm... my experience as a privacy and media lawyer suggests otherwise.

Prince Harry's account is all too familiar; how his girlfriend's mother has been "having to struggle past photographers in order to get to her front door; the attempts of reporters and photographers to gain illegal entry to her home and the calls to police that followed; the substantial bribes offered by papers to her ex-boyfriend; the bombardment of nearly every friend, co-worker, and loved one in her life."

Let me take you back in a time for a moment. Do you remember the Watsons? They claimed that inaccurate press reports alleged that their daughter Diane bore some responsibility for her own death. She was murdered in 1991. Her brother, Alan, aged 15, took his own life, and when his body was found, he had copies of those articles in his hand. His mother, Margaret flagged up the cruelty of the reporting, which she felt had had a deadly effect on her son. "They took away his respect, they took away his dignity and (they didn't leave us alone) even on the day of his funeral".

The Watsons were not on Netflix and had not appeared on reality TV. On the other hand, you may feel that celebrities, with their big egos and even bigger incomes, court publicity, and if the press get hold of personal or controversial information, then they should simply roll with it. As I've said in a previous blog, those of us who fight for privacy protection certainly don't want draconian laws removing the very fabric of freedom of the press.

Yet with a free press comes the obligation for a very real degree of due care and attention. I believe that just because you have a successful career, it does not mean that you have to surrender your privacy. In a sense, the more the press is allowed to intrude inappropriately into the lives of celebrities, the more justification there can be for the same level of violation in all our lives. You can see how invading celebrities' rights made it that little bit easier to intrude on 'ordinary' people suddenly thrust into the public spotlight.

You could say we've now arrived at boxing 'round two and a half'. Impress is in one corner of the ring and Ipso, in the other. However, the referee's still not able to ring the bell to continue the match. Why? Just a little political intervention, in the form of a (deep breath), 'consultation on press regulation', just announced by Culture Secretary, Karen Bradley. (Not, as I first thought, Karen Brady from The Apprentice, sent in by Lord Sugar to oversee the two teams).

The Culture Secretary will have to decide whether to activate regulations which could see newspapers face 'exemplary' damages if they are sued for libel. That is unless they are prepared to be regulated by Impress. If these are triggered (and I know Brexit's Article 50 has left most of us with regulation overkill), any newspaper that refuses to sign up would have to pay the legal fees of those who sued them for libel. Cue plenty of sound and fury.

Whether it leads to anything significant eventually, remains to be seen. I see all the time how the press are prepared to break privacy, defamation, data protection and intellectual property laws, often apologising afterwards (0r being forced to apologise), leaving the impression they knew full well what they were doing. Often the story is just too darn good to worry about the law. Against that background, I'm not sure any regulator, regardless of its composition, will be able to really change press behaviour. Instead the law, whilst imperfect and often breached, is probably the best recourse for those targeted by unscrupulous press activities.

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