What the Mosley privacy decision really means

Where does this leave effective protection for privacy?

This morning the European Court of Human Rights rejected Max Mosley's contention that the United Kingdom should ensure that those who are about to have their privacy intruded upon by the media be notified in advance. (There is an excellent legal analysis of the decision already at the INFORRM website by Hugh Tomlinson QC.)

There are three main points of significance to this decision.

First, the substantive English law in respect of the misuse of private information remains unchanged. Mosley would still be able to bring his case and the News of the World would still have to pay substantial damages and costs. There is nothing in this decision that actually changes the law as it stands.

The unhappy consequence of the decision is that in situations like the case of Mosley, where there was no public interest in the intrusion, the victim's only remedy will still be to bring an action for damages after their privacy has been irretrievably lost.

This means that only individuals as wealthy and resilient as Mosley have a remedy for the breach of their legal rights. The cheaper, speedier and effective remedy of an injunction, which would allow the enforcement of privacy rights by those not rich and famous, has been held by the Strasbourg Court to be not a requirement.

So, contrary to the misleading spin of the mainstream media about how "prior notification" would favour the rich and famous, continuing with the status quo means that expensive and lengthy damages actions for privacy can only really be threatened or taken by someone of the attributes of a Max Mosley.

Second, this decision may not be the final word in this case. It is open to Mosley to appeal to the Grand Chamber. Indeed, had Mosley won this round, then the UK government may have made such an appeal. If so, this is a matter that will not go away and, just as no one could predict how the Court would rule today, no one can predict confidently what the Grand Chamber may decide, and then there would then be no higher appeal for any party.

Third, it leaves open the difficult question of what protection should there be in the meantime for individuals who face having their right to privacy irrecoverably lost for no good reason.

Such intrusions, without a public-interest justification, will continue to be an infringement of an individual's legitimate right to a private life. The "Hackgate" scandal has shown that tabloids are indifferent to the legal and voluntary restrictions to their intrusions. The commercial desire to publish the private details of individuals when there is no public interest is not a serious "free-expression issue". Obliging the press to have a public-interest justification before publishing such information cannot seriously be called censorship: it is simply decency and fair play. In 99 per cent of cases, the press contacts the subjects of stories in advance, and that is not "censorship" either.

However, given the welcome and impressive development of privacy law since the introduction of the Human Rights Act 1998, today's adverse decision is only mild setback for those seeking a more civilized and respectful society.

 

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman and a practising media lawyer.

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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Junior doctors’ strikes: the greatest union failure in a generation

The first wave of junior doctor contract impositions began this week. Here’s how the BMA union failed junior doctors.

In Robert Tressell’s novel, The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists, the author ridicules the notion of work as a virtuous end per se:

“And when you are all dragging out a miserable existence, gasping for breath or dying for want of air, if one of your number suggests smashing a hole in the side of one of the gasometers, you will all fall upon him in the name of law and order.”

Tressell’s characters are subdued and eroded by the daily disgraces of working life; casualised labour, poor working conditions, debt and poverty.

Although the Junior Doctors’ dispute is a far cry from the Edwardian working-poor, the eruption of fervour from Junior Doctors during the dispute channelled similar overtones of dire working standards, systemic abuse, and a spiralling accrual of discontent at the notion of “noble” work as a reward in itself. 

While the days of union activity precipitating governmental collapse are long over, the BMA (British Medical Association) mandate for industrial action occurred in a favourable context that the trade union movement has not witnessed in decades. 

Not only did members vote overwhelmingly for industrial action with the confidence of a wider public, but as a representative of an ostensibly middle-class profession with an irreplaceable skillset, the BMA had the necessary cultural capital to make its case regularly in media print and TV – a privilege routinely denied to almost all other striking workers.

Even the Labour party, which displays parliamentary reluctance in supporting outright strike action, had key members of the leadership join protests in a spectacle inconceivable just a few years earlier under the leadership of “Red Ed”.

Despite these advantageous circumstances, the first wave of contract impositions began this week. The great failures of the BMA are entirely self-inflicted: its deference to conservative narratives, an overestimation of its own method, and woeful ignorance of the difference between a trade dispute and moralising conundrums.

These right-wing discourses have assumed various metamorphoses, but at their core rest charges of immorality and betrayal – to themselves, to the profession, and ultimately to the country. These narratives have been successfully deployed since as far back as the First World War to delegitimise strikes as immoral and “un-British” – something that has remarkably haunted mainstream left-wing and union politics for over 100 years.

Unfortunately, the BMA has inherited this doubt and suspicion. Tellingly, a direct missive from the state machinery that the BMA was “trying to topple the government” helped reinforce the same historic fears of betrayal and unpatriotic behaviour that somehow crossed a sentient threshold.

Often this led to abstract and cynical theorising such as whether doctors would return to work in the face of fantastical terrorist attacks, distracting the BMA from the trade dispute at hand.

In time, with much complicity from the BMA, direct action is slowly substituted for direct inaction with no real purpose and focus ever-shifting from the contract. The health service is superficially lamented as under-resourced and underfunded, yes, but certainly no serious plan or comment on how political factors and ideologies have contributed to its present condition.

There is little to be said by the BMA for how responsibility for welfare provision lay with government rather than individual doctors; virtually nothing on the role of austerity policies; and total silence on how neoliberal policies act as a system of corporate welfare, eliciting government action when in the direct interests of corporatism.

In place of safeguards demanded by the grassroots, there are instead vague quick-fixes. Indeed, there can be no protections for whistleblowers without recourse to definable and tested legal safeguards. There are limited incentives for compliance by employers because of atomised union representation and there can be no exposure of a failing system when workers are treated as passive objects requiring ever-greater regulation.

In many ways, the BMA exists as the archetypal “union for a union’s sake”, whose material and functional interest is largely self-intuitive. The preservation of the union as an entity is an end in itself.

Addressing conflict in a manner consistent with corporate and business frameworks, there remains at all times overarching emphasis on stability (“the BMA is the only union for doctors”), controlled compromise (“this is the best deal we can get”) and appeasement to “greater” interests (“think of the patients”). These are reiterated even when diametrically opposed to its own members or irrelevant to the trade dispute.

With great chutzpah, the BMA often moves from one impasse to the next, framing defeats as somehow in the interests of the membership. Channels of communication between hierarchy and members remain opaque, allowing decisions such as revocation of the democratic mandate for industrial action to be made with frightening informality.

Pointedly, although the BMA often appears to be doing nothing, the hierarchy is in fact continually defining the scope of choice available to members – silence equals facilitation and de facto acceptance of imposition. You don’t get a sense of cumulative unionism ready to inspire its members towards a swift and decisive victory.

The BMA has woefully wasted the potential for direct action. It has encouraged a passive and pessimistic malaise among its remaining membership and presided over the most spectacular failure of union representation in a generation.

Ahmed Wakas Khan is a junior doctor, freelance journalist and editorials lead at The Platform. He tweets @SireAhmed.