What to look out for in the Mosley privacy judgment

The European Court of Human Rights ruling.

Later today the European Court of Human Rights is expected to deliver judgment in the Max Mosley case.

As the judgment may be highly significant in the development of privacy law in the United Kingdom, it is important to be clear what questions the Court has actually been asked.

The background to this case is fairly well-known, but from a legal perspective the following facts are important.

The private sexual life of Mosley was invaded as part of a tabloid newspaper exercise. Information obtained from this intrusion was then published in a Sunday newspaper and video footage was posted on the newspaper's website. The High Court found that there was no public interest in this intrusion at all. The newspaper's attempt at claiming a public interest was unconvincing and, at best, shallow.

The consequence was that Mosley had had his right to private life wrongly and irrevocably interfered with for no good reason.

This was unlawful, as such misuse or wrongful disclosure of private information is a civil wrong in England and Wales as a consequence of Parliament's passing of the Human Rights Act 1998.

And unlike a person's reputation which can be vindicated by means of a claim for defamation, there is no sensible way a person's privacy can be restored. What this means is that there is a legal right which cannot actually be protected.

The High Court awarded Mosley damages of £60,000.

However, Mosley decided to take his case to the European Courts of Human Rights in Strasbourg, the guardian of the European Convention of Human Rights (not to be confused with the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg which superintends EU law). The basis of Mosley's complaint was that the United Kingdom does not provide for any legal remedy which adequately protects his right to privacy.

Mosley's case is as follows: newspapers contact the subjects of their stories some 99 per cent of the time before publication (a figure provided by Paul Dacre, editor of the Daily Mail, himself); the other 1 per cent of the time is because the newspaper believes it would face an injunction application so as to prevent wrongful publication; however, in that 1 per cent of cases, the High Court under section 12 of the Human Rights Act 1998 would be required to balance the right to privacy against the newspaper's right to free expression.

Accordingly, there would be no difference in 99 per cent of cases and in the other 1 per cent, the legislation is in place to ensure privacy does not automatically trump free expression.

The UK government should, Mosley submitted to the European Court of Human rights, therefore ensure that newspapers always contact the subjects of their stories before publication so that there can, when appropriate, be an application for a privacy injunction.

If the public interest in publication is stronger than the right to privacy in any given case, the injunction application would not succeed.

Against this claim, the newspaper industry point to the fact that to introduce such a requirement to notify a subject of a story that his or her privacy rights are to be invaded would require either the UK government to introduce legislation or for the courts to further develop the law.

They argue also from a general "freedom of the press" standpoint, saying that although it is good journalistic practice to notify a subject before publication, this should not be converted into a firm legal obligation backed by coercive sanctions for non-compliance. By providing an opportunity for the "rich and famous" to obtain an injunction, the contention of the newspapers is that one would be allowing people to buy themselves out of having their conduct scrutinised by a free and vigorous press necessary in a free society.

It is not clear which way the Court will decide the case. It may even rule on the narrow point of admissibility alone, leaving the substantive issues untouched. And any decision will probably be appealed by the losing party to the Grand Chamber for a further hearing.

If Mosley is correct that one must have an effective right to privacy, especially as in his case when the newspaper cannot establish at court any public interest in interfering with that right, then there is a difficult question of how the legal system should protect him. Are damages really an adequate remedy?

And then there are further questions.

Would obliging newspapers to contact subjects in advance of publication really be an onerous interference with their right to free expression, given that such contact is the norm and the newspapers anyway have protection under the Human Rights Act for publications in the public interest?

If so, how exactly would such an obligation be enforced?

And, ultimately, would the UK government be compelled to again to change the law in that one way which would be even more unpopular with the tabloids than giving prisoners the vote?

I will be posting my analysis of the Mosley judgment here later today.

In the meantime, the following is essential background reading on the case:

-- The agreed statement of facts and issues.

-- David Pannick's brilliant speech to the Court on behalf of Mosley.

-- The submissions of the (perhaps wrongly called) Media Lawyers Association opposing Mosley (pdf).

-- INFORRM's account of the parties' submissions.

UPDATE: Mosley has lost his bid to force newspapers to warn individuals ahead of publication. More to follow...

 

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman and author of the Jack of Kent blog.

His legal journalism has included popularising the Simon Singh libel case and discrediting the Julian Assange myths about his extradition case.  His uncovering of the Nightjack email hack by the Times was described as "masterly analysis" by Lord Justice Leveson.

David is also a solicitor and was successful in the "Twitterjoketrial" appeal at the High Court.

(Nothing on this blog constitutes legal advice.)

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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.