Privacy, the public interest and "a woman called Imogen Thomas"

The significance of the <em>CTB v News Group</em> injunction.

The first sentence of yesterday's privacy ruling by Sir David Eady in CTB v News Group Newspapers made it clear which way the rest of the judgment was going to go.

While the others who were to be named in the judgment were accorded the usual judicial courtesy of being introduced as Mr This or Ms That, no such respect was accorded to Ms Imogen Thomas, the second defendant. Instead, she is introduced with the dismissive "a woman called Imogen Thomas".

But worse was to come for Ms Thomas. For, even though there had been no cross-examination of the claimant's evidence, and even though her lawyer stressed that she denied asking the claimant for any money (see paragraph 17), Mr Justice Eady said it "appeared strongly" that Ms Thomas was blackmailing the claimant (paragraph 9).

This was a remarkable observation, not least because it was a suggestion of criminal liability. Not even the claimant's lawyers had made the allegation against her.

Today, rival tabloid newspapers to the newspaper defendant have splashed on this "Blackmail" point with photographs of Ms Thomas. Her reputation appears to have been questioned by our most famous libel judge on the basis of untested -- and denied -- evidence. Even by itself, this is an extraordinary development.

So why was it done? Why did Mr Justice Eady use the absolute privilege of a judicial statement to make such an observation on a defendant in a case before him? Well, partly he did so because he could. The evidence of the claimant seems to have been detailed and compelling, and it appears to have been based in part on text messages. Although Ms Thomas appears to have made a bare denial, she did not submit evidence to controvert the claimant's evidence. On the balance of the evidence placed before him, it was entirely open to Mr Justice Eady to form the view he did for the purpose of the interim injunction until trial.

However, more importantly, such a finding by the court provided part of the public interest in maintaining the injunction. The private lives of the claimant and his family were engaged; and so any interference with this right had to be in the public interest.

It was not enough to assert a right to free expression. In cases such as this, the court has to balance the public interest in freedom of expression against the public interest in the privacy of individuals. Here, the court found that, on the basis of the (untested but not uncontroverted) evidence of Ms Thomas's conduct, and on other evidence, that there was no public interest in publication of details of the claimant's private life. Instead, the public interest was in ordering that the private information should not be published and that the claimant's name not be made public.

This whole exercise is perhaps artificial: the widely-suggested claimant in this action is merely a couple of mouse clicks away. But, as paragraphs 27 and 28 of the judgment makes clear, the fact that some information is supposedly in the public domain does not mean that the parties to whom the court order is addressed can escape. This creates the rather unhappy consequence for the newspaper defendant of carrying the legal costs of fighting the case, while not commercially benefiting from the "kiss and tell story".

This and other cases are steadily making such traditional "kiss and tell stories" more difficult and costly. This is not necessarily a bad thing; if there is no public interest with an interference with someone's private life, then it is hard to justify the press intrusion and public humiliation. Indeed, a respect for personal privacy and an avoidance of humiliation are marks of a civilised society. And, in this case, the newspaper did not even try to argue there was a public interest.

Supporters of privacy law will emphasise that, unlike libel, the "public interest" is built into the DNA of privacy law. There should never be any privacy injunction if the public interest in publication outweighs the need to respect privacy. The lack of a public interest defence that has long marred libel law should thereby not be a problem with privacy law.

That said, the future for privacy law is uncertain. The courts do not want their orders to be futile, and so widespread internet publication of personal details may mean that injunctions are not granted too readily. The tabloid press may convince politicians that there should be new privacy legislation that is not so focused on injunctions (though the "phone-hacking" scandal shows how little the tabloids care for general statutory protections).

There is currently a battle for primacy in Fleet Street over the jurisdiction of the High Court and the freedom of the press to do what it likes with private information. It is not certain who, if anyone, will win this particular battle: not all conflicts have a tidy resolution. But in the meantime, the commercial basis of the traditional "kiss and tell story" will need to be reassessed, and it is difficult to see why that is a bad thing.

 

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman and a 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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What happens when a president refuses to step down?

An approaching constitutional crisis has triggered deep political unrest in the Congo.

Franck Diongo reached his party’s headquarters shortly after 10am and stepped out of a Range Rover. Staff and hangers-on rose from plastic chairs to greet the president of the Mouvement Lumumbiste Progressiste (MLP), named after the first elected leader of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Diongo, a compact and powerfully built man, was so tightly wound that his teeth ground as he talked. When agitated, he slammed his palms on the table and his speech became shrill. “We live under a dictatorial regime, so it used the security forces to kill us with live rounds to prevent our demonstration,” he said.

The MLP is part of a coalition of opposition parties known as the Rassemblement. Its aim is to ensure that the Congolese president, Joseph Kabila, who has been president since 2001, leaves office on 19 December, at the end of his second and supposedly final term.

Yet the elections that were meant to take place late last month have not been organised. The government has blamed logistical and financial difficulties, but Kabila’s opponents claim that the president has hamstrung the electoral commission in the hope that he can use his extended mandate to change the rules. “Mr Kabila doesn’t want to quit power,” said Diongo, expressing a widespread belief here.

On 19 September, the Rassemblement planned a march in Kinshasa, the capital, to protest the failure to deliver elections and to remind the president that his departure from office was imminent. But the demonstration never took place. At sunrise, clashes broke out between police and protesters in opposition strongholds. The military was deployed. By the time peace was restored 36 hours later, dozens had died. Kabila’s interior minister, claiming that the government had faced down an insurrection, acknowledged the deaths of 32 people but said that they were killed by criminals during looting.

Subsequent inquiries by the United Nations and Human Rights Watch (HRW) told a different story. They recorded more fatalities – at least 53 and 56, respectively – and said that the state had been responsible for most of the deaths. They claimed that the Congolese authorities had obstructed the investigators, and the true number of casualties was likely higher. According to HRW, security forces had seized and removed bodies “in an apparent effort to hide the evidence”.

The UN found that the lethal response was directed from a “central command centre. . . jointly managed” by officials from the police, army, presidential bodyguard and intelligence agency that “authorised the use of force, including firearms”.

The reports validated claims made by the Rassemblement that it was soldiers who had set fire to several opposition parties’ headquarters on 20 September. Six men were killed when the compound of the UDPS party was attacked.

On 1 November, their funerals took place where they fell. White coffins, each draped in a UDPS flag, were shielded from the midday sun by a gazebo, while mourners found shade inside the charred building. Pierrot Tshibangu lost his younger sibling, Evariste, in the attack. “When we arrived, we found my brother’s body covered in stab marks and bullet wounds,” he recalled.

Once the government had suppressed the demonstration, the attorney general compiled a list of influential figures in the Rassemblement – including Diongo – and forbade them from leaving the capital. Kinshasa’s governor then outlawed all political protest.

It was easy to understand why Diongo felt embattled, even paranoid. Midway through our conversation, his staff apprehended a man loitering in the courtyard. Several minutes of mayhem ensued before he was restrained and confined under suspicion of spying for the government.

Kabila is seldom seen in public and almost never addresses the nation. His long-term intentions are unclear, but the president’s chief diplomatic adviser maintains that his boss has no designs on altering the constitution or securing a third term. He insists that Kabila will happily step down once the country is ready for the polls.

Most refuse to believe such assurances. On 18 October, Kabila’s ruling alliance struck a deal with a different, smaller opposition faction. It allows Kabila to stay in office until the next election, which has been postponed until April 2018. A rickety government of national unity is being put in place but discord is already rife.

Jean-Lucien Bussa of the CDER party helped to negotiate the deal and is now a front-runner for a ministerial portfolio. At a corner table in the national assembly’s restaurant, he told me that the Rassemblement was guilty of “a lack of realism”, and that its fears were misplaced because Kabila won’t be able to prolong his presidency any further.

“On 29 April 2018, the Congolese will go to the ballot box to vote for their next president,” he said. “There is no other alternative for democrats than to find a negotiated solution, and this accord has given us one.”

Diongo was scathing of the pact (he called it “a farce intended to deceive”) and he excommunicated its adherents from his faction. “They are Mr Kabila’s collaborators, who came to divide the opposition,” he told me. “What kind of oppositionist can give Mr Kabila the power to violate the constitution beyond 19 December?”

Diongo is convinced that the president has no intention of walking away from power in April 2018. “Kabila will never organise elections if he cannot change the constitution,” he warned.

Diongo’s anger peaked at the suggestion that it will be an uphill struggle to dislodge a head of state who has control of the security forces. “What you need to consider,” he said, “is that no army can defy a people determined to take control of their destiny . . . The Congolese people will have the last word!”

A recent poll suggested that the president would win less than 8 per cent of the vote if an election were held this year. One can only assume that Kabila is hoping that the population will have no say at all.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage