“Show us the baby”

The Court orders that a new and frightened young mother be left in peace.

As this blog has previously set out, there is actually no such thing in England and Wales as a single "law of privacy".

By this I mean that there is no free-standing general right of legal action to protect privacy against any and all threatened and actual intrusions. Instead, there is a bundle of civil and criminal laws relating to privacy which, when taken together, constitute the laws of privacy; just as a range of specific laws from copyright to patents constitute the laws of intellectual property.

Some of these privacy laws are common law (or "judge-made"), most notably the laws of confidentiality and the misuse of private information, and such judge-made law always risks being dismissed as by "unelected judges".

Many of our privacy laws are on a statutory basis: blackmail under the Theft Act, the Data Protection Act, the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act and, often overlooked, the Protection from Harassment Act 1997. It under this last Act that the interesting judgment was published today on the privacy of Hugh Grant's daughter and her mother.

The short judgment is sobering reading for anyone concerned with the modern practices of the tabloid press and of those who get stories and photographs for them. The two claimants are the mother of Hugh Grant's child, and the daughter. The judge details the evidence put before him:

On more than one occasion she has been followed by a tall bald man in his thirties who drives a black Audi car. The number of the registration plate starts with the letters LV05. On one occasion while she was being followed it so distracted her that she collided with the car in front which had stopped suddenly. About two weeks ago the driver of the car followed a friend of the First Claimant. He spoke to the friend and said "tell Tinglan that she is being followed by a black Audi". She found this distressing. Since then the pursuit of her has become much worse and her life has become, she says, unbearable.

In the issue of the Daily Mail dated 2 and 3 November there were published stories about Hugh Grant and the First Claimant having had a daughter together. She has had lots of calls from journalists and she has had voicemail messages and text messages from journalists. There have been photographers outside her home every day. At the beginning they would hide themselves, sitting in cars behind newspapers. Since then, they have become more and more over confident and do not seem to care about being seen or about intimidating her.

On one occasion she went to the supermarket. On her return there were four or five men behind her car with big cameras. She was scared to get out of the car. When finally she did get out of the car two women who were also waiting there called her by name whilst the photographers took photographs. She was frightened of the experience.

On some afternoons in the last few days there have been ten or more people outside her house. On some evenings they have not left, but stayed all night, including when it was raining. She and her neighbours have been kept up by the flashing of cameras.

The photographers have also spoken to her neighbour and have tried to persuade her neighbour to telephone the First Claimant to speak about the baby. The neighbour has warned her of this. The First Claimant has not been able to meet with friends because the photographers follow her wherever she goes, and when she meets someone the photographers follow that person to try to get information about her.

The First Claimant has not been able to take her daughter outside. On 10 November she did take her daughter out to the doctor. She had to cover the child with a blanket. On their way back visiting the doctor they were followed. She had to call her mother for assistance in returning to the house.

The First Claimant's mother then went back out of the house in order to try to take photographs of the photographers who were harassing and following the First Claimant. She saw one man in a car with photographic equipment. She turned in order to prepare her camera. He started the engine of his car and drove down the road towards her so that she had to run. The man followed her down the road shouting. He appeared to be swearing at her and he was taking photographs. At the end of the road he turned back in a u-turn. The First Claimant's mother was really frightened. However, she managed to take two photographs of the man in the car and of the registration number of the car.

On 10 November three photographers were outside the First Claimant's house. One was wearing a yellow jumper. He said "Hello Tinglan" and then proceeded to take photographs. She found his behaviour intimidating. Her parents who are staying with her are prevented from leaving the house.

The First Claimant is unable to look after her daughter in a normal way. She has had to cancel appointments, including ones for her child. She is frightened to drive with her child because the distraction makes it unsafe.

A complaint to the Press Complaints Commission did not work:

On 3 November 2011 through her solicitor the First Claimant has complained to the Press Complaints Commission for breaches of clause 4 (harassment) of the Code, and expressing concern that the editors may be using material obtained in contravention of the code. [...]

Following the complaint to the Press Complaints Commission, the PCC circulated a warning to editors on the same day. While Mr Thomson understands that some journalists and photographers stopped attending at the property, a number of them persisted and have acted as described by the First Defendant.

Hugh Grant even tried the direct approach:

On Sunday 24 April the News of the World published the front page article already referred to. Hugh Grant is working abroad. When he attended at the home of the First Claimant on 3 November, as he has informed Mr Thomson, he asked the photographers if there was anything he could do or say to make them leave a new and frightened young mother in peace.

They said "show us the baby".

He refused. He asked if they thought it was acceptable for grown men to be harassing and frightening a mother and baby for commercial profit. They shrugged and took more pictures.

There are some important points to make about this judgment. First, all the evidence cited by the judge is from or on behalf of the claimants. It is their account of what happened. There is no evidence from the reporters or photographers. They were not represented. Moreover, the evidence supporting the claimants' case has not been tested by cross-examination. The claimants' supporting evidence has been adopted by the judge as it was given. The injunction made is against persons unknown.

Second, it shows the continuing weakness of press self-regulation. Whilst the editors who subscribe to the Code can call off own their reporters and photographers, the various press agencies (that make their money from hawking these stories around Fleet Street) and freelance paparazzi are simply not affected. The intrusions -- and risks -- are effectively outsourced on a commercial basis by the tabloids.

Third, all the judge is ordering is for the reporters and photographers to do what they should be doing anyway. Correctly, there is no explicit mention of the Human Rights Act, or even of the law of misuse of private information, or any "balancing exercise". No special treatment is given to the press or any right to free expression. It is (rightly) treated as much of a straightforward harassment case as if it were a local but nameless stalker.

And finally, if the claimants' evidence is even broadly correct -- and the judge found it compelling -- then it demonstrates that the dark days continue. The tabloids, and those who supply them with content, retain their casual and unlawful disregard for the privacy of non-public figures. Regardless of the aggrieved protestations and heady promises of tabloid editors, their agents and operatives still shrug and take more pictures.


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.)

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.