Use of words were a ‘gross intrusion’ to right to privacy, High Court hears

IT cannot be permissible under the Constitution to photograph a mother and her young son and then use words suggesting she is a whore and the child a bastard, the High Court was told yesterday by counsel for the woman who claims she was defamed and her family’s privacy invaded by a newspaper.

Turlough O’Donnell SC, for Ruth Hickey, 36, said articles published by the Sunday World were a “gross intrusion” of the right to privacy of these two people and he asked the court to award aggravated, exemplary and punitive damages against the paper.

High Court president, Mr Justice Nicholas Kearns, said he hoped to give his judgment in the case at the start of the next law term in October after he heard legal submissions from both sides yesterday.

Ms Hickey, of Archer’s Wood, Castaheany, Dublin, says she was defamed by the use of the word “whore” in the paper when it published details in 2006 of a voicemail message by the panto star Twink (Adele King) in which she used the word to describe Ms Hickey.

She is also claiming her constitutional right to privacy, and that of her newborn son, was breached when the paper published photos of her, the child, and the baby’s father, David Agnew (Twink’s ex-husband) leaving the Births, Marriages and Deaths office in Dublin in May 2006.

Mr O’Donnell told the court a significant part of this case was that the newspaper had not offered any evidence and while it was entitled to do so, the court was entitled to make inferences from its “silence” in relation to the meaning of the words.

Mr O’Donnell submitted the word whore could not be used about a woman in the context it was and the law was clear in relation to the interpretation of words, he said.

The context in which the word was used – reporting something said by Twink – was irrelevant to the word’s meaning.

It was also highly significant that the paper had not addressed the plaintiff’s claim that it (the paper) had said she engaged in sexual relations in which there was no love, Mr O’Donnell said.

This was a case where an attack was made on the privacy rights of “an innocent child and his mother” and while there was an issue between privacy and freedom of expression, the question was of balancing those rights, counsel said.

Mr O’Donnell said privacy cases successfully taken by celebrity model Naomi Campbell over her attendance at a Narcotics Anonymous meeting, and one taken by Princess Caroline of Monaco against paparazzi intrusion, showed the issue of a public place was not determinative of whether privacy was invaded.

Mr O’Donnell also disagreed that because Ms Hickey told a journalist she was expecting a baby, this granted “open season” to the press.

Eoin McCullough SC, for the newspaper, said the Naomi Campbell and Princess Caroline cases were “entirely different” as, in the Campbell case, the tenor of a House of Lords’ decision in her favour was that it interfered with her recovery from narcotics, while in the Caroline case, it was about a person being chased by the media.

It was denied Ms Hickey was under surveillance and it was a fact that information about her and her baby was in the public domain because it was freely available in the registry office.

It was also important to point out she had put into the public domain information about her pregnancy which she was entitled to do, though it was done in a “form of news management,” counsel said.

It had been accepted by Ms Hickey, in her evidence, that Twink was entitled to speak her mind over the break-up of her 20-year marriage due to an affair, and someone having a child with her husband, and that was material which was brought into the public domain.

In weighing all this up, it was far less a breach of privacy than in other cases and there was no evidence that it could legitimately outweigh the right to freedom of expression for a newspaper, counsel said.

It was “simply wrong” for Ms Hickey’s counsel to say the court could infer something from the paper not going into evidence, he said.

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