The media’s right to report on celebrities has been supported by two potentially ground-breaking rulings at the European Court of Human Rights.
It rejected an invasion-of-privacy complaint by Monaco’s Princess Caroline and said an injuction which prevented reporting of a German TV star for a cocaine arrest was wrong.
The verdicts take immediate effect and set a benchmark for members of the 47-country Council of Europe.
In both rulings, the court referred to the often-tricky balance between the media’s right to expression and the individual’s right to privacy.
Princess Caroline and her husband, Prince Ernst August von Hanover, had filed a complaint with the court alleging that their privacy rights had been violated in Germany over the 2002 publication by Frau im Spiegel magazine of a photo of the couple on a skiing holiday – a time when her father, Prince Rainier, was ailing.
A German court had initially upheld the media’s right to report on how the royal family was coping with Rainier’s illness, and how his children “reconciled their obligations of family solidarity with the legitimate needs of their private life.”
The ECHR upheld that ruling, saying Caroline and her lawyers “had not provided any evidence that the photos had been taken in a climate of general harassment, as they had alleged, or that they had been taken secretly.”
Caroline, the court noted, has sought for nearly two decades to prevent the publication of photos of her private life in the press. Her legal team had argued that the German weekly violated the spirit of an 2004 verdict by the ECHR in her favour – that three German magazines had infringed her privacy by publishing photos of her and her children at a Monaco beach club.
The other ruling involved a Hamburg court’s injunction in 2005 to stop Axel Springer, the group behind daily Bild, from publishing articles about a TV star who was arrested on charges of cocaine possession. A German federal court later upheld the injunction.
The ECHR said that the German courts violated the right of expression, and affirmed the “public interest” of some Bild articles in 2004 and 2005 about a nationally known star who long portrayed a police superintendent on TV.
The court noted that the actor, which it did not identify, had been arrested in a public place – the Munich Beer Festival. It said Bild had also received its information from German officials, and that there was no evidence to indicate the newspaper had acted in “bad faith.”
Claas-Hendrik Soehring, head of legal affairs at Axel Springer , welcomed the ruling, and said it flew in the face of recent decisions in German courts that had cramped the media’s ability to cover celebrities and judicial investigations.
“As a celebrity you cannot on one hand seek public attention – for example when it is about enhancing your career through the media – and then on the other hand, once there are judicial proceedings, seek to have all coverage forbidden,” he said.
Mark Dennis, a London media lawyer with Taylor Wessing who has followed the case, said the ECHR’s decision could have broad implications in Europe – notably in Britain, where a parliamentary Committee on Privacy and Injunctions is looking into such issues.
“The court has expressly recognised the essential role played by the press in a democratic society, and the importance of journalistic freedom,” he wrote in an email. “The judgments will no doubt be a welcome relief for the UK media, given the current climate of scrutiny about press standards.”
The ruling also comes in the wake of an ECHR ruling in May against an attempt by former Formula One boss Max Mosley to force newspapers to warn people before exposing details of their private lives. He won a case against the News of The World for a 2008 story claiming he had a Nazi-themed orgy with five women. He denied the claim of a Nazi theme.
Taken together, the latest ruling and the ECHR’s decisions on the Mosley case - which is still awaiting an appeal – signal a rollback of the power of the right-to-privacy defence, London media lawyer Mark Stephens said.