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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Theresa May is paying the price for mismanaging Boris Johnson

The Foreign Secretary's bruised ego may end up destroying Theresa May. 

And to think that Theresa May scheduled her big speech for this Friday to make sure that Conservative party conference wouldn’t be dominated by the matter of Brexit. Now, thanks to Boris Johnson, it won’t just be her conference, but Labour’s, which is overshadowed by Brexit in general and Tory in-fighting in particular. (One imagines that the Labour leadership will find a way to cope somehow.)

May is paying the price for mismanaging Johnson during her period of political hegemony after she became leader. After he was betrayed by Michael Gove and lacking any particular faction in the parliamentary party, she brought him back from the brink of political death by making him Foreign Secretary, but also used her strength and his weakness to shrink his empire.

The Foreign Office had its responsibility for negotiating Brexit hived off to the newly-created Department for Exiting the European Union (Dexeu) and for navigating post-Brexit trade deals to the Department of International Trade. Johnson was given control of one of the great offices of state, but with no responsibility at all for the greatest foreign policy challenge since the Second World War.

Adding to his discomfort, the new Foreign Secretary was regularly the subject of jokes from the Prime Minister and cabinet colleagues. May likened him to a dog that had to be put down. Philip Hammond quipped about him during his joke-fuelled 2017 Budget. All of which gave Johnson’s allies the impression that Johnson-hunting was a licensed sport as far as Downing Street was concerned. He was then shut out of the election campaign and has continued to be a marginalised figure even as the disappointing election result forced May to involve the wider cabinet in policymaking.

His sense of exclusion from the discussions around May’s Florence speech only added to his sense of isolation. May forgot that if you aren’t going to kill, don’t wound: now, thanks to her lost majority, she can’t afford to put any of the Brexiteers out in the cold, and Johnson is once again where he wants to be: centre-stage. 

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