“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.)

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Mumslink shows how online parenting networks are coming of age

Women online are changing the relationship between digital domesticity and digital independence. 

The habit of “speaking as a mother” came in for its fair share of criticism this summer. Andrea Leadsom’s insinuation of superiority over Theresa May, her rival for the Tory leadership, elicited widespread scorn – not least from those who have done most to strengthen the voice of mothers as a group: internet mums.

Over the past 15 years, the ten million users a month who log on to Mumsnet have been courted by politicians in webchats and speeches alike. The 2010 general election was even named “the Mumsnet election” in their honour.

From the start, parenting networks attracted users interested in comradeship, as much as those after information. 

For Jo Williamson, a mother-of-two, the trigger was the day her second child left for school, a jarring experience. “I went into a blind panic, thinking: ‘Blimey, I’m going to be sitting in an empty house just waiting for everybody to come back.’” In response, Jo and her business partner Jane Pickard came up with the idea for a new site that focuses on the fluid nature of many women’s professional and family lives.

The resulting network, Mumslink, uses carefully edited news feeds to introduce readers to ideas, businesses and charities that complement all aspects of their lives – from recipe tips to volunteering. “There are so many women out there with a plethora of talents but most of the time, because you’re with your children, nobody asks you to get involved,” Williamson says.

Similar feelings of isolation led Siobhan Freegard to found Netmums, one of the UK’s largest parenting sites. Back in 2000, she had barely heard of “social networks”, nor of Mumsnet, which launched around the same time, yet she knew that mothers needed a place “to share their stories and maybe meet up in the offline world, too”.

Such identity-building led to divisions over “the right way” to be a mother. A tense rivalry developed between the slightly younger Netmums and the more educated and affluent Mumsnetters (Tesco and Waitrose didn’t sponsor different networks for nothing). Within the sites’ pages, differences of opinion over working v stay-at-home parenting sparked allegations of hostility and bullying. Still, the media researcher Sarah Pedersen says there’s an argument that these sites have helped produce a reduction in depression and anxiety, as well as greater opportunities for women to negotiate “the tension between themselves and their role as mothers”.

There are signs that this online culture is growing up. The perception of mums as “a bit insular and thick” is more easily countered, says Justine Roberts, the founder of Mumsnet, “now that so many mothers are able to express their individuality, their interests and their expertise in the public domain”.

According to Freegard, the very act of online sharing has helped begin to repair the rifts within the parenting debate. “With social media, we see working mums and part-time mums, and we see mums changing roles as their children change ages, and we understand that there are different angles to things – that everyone has their story.”

This is more pronounced in the world of video blogging, Freegard says. On her YouTube channel, Channel Mum, people talk calmly about controversial subjects that would have been a “bloodbath” on Netmums, such as ear piercing for very young children. “With video, you can see the person in real life and that helps you feel for their story,” she says.

Perhaps the greatest effect, however, has been on how the internet allows parents to work from home. As many as 160,000 part-time ventures have been started by British women in the past two years alone, self-styled kitchen-table start-ups. Sites such as Mumslink (similarly funded by Williamson and Pickard and run out of the former’s front room in Hertfordshire) aim to help this home-based workforce with new clients. One Mumslinker visits the site to write about her own line of natural nail varnish, another to promote her hot-tub business. The company Digital Mums uses it to encourage women to expand their digital skills.

Commercial savvy is something that Freegard is also keen to develop at Channel Mum – equipping her contributors with financial advice and small stipends. “I remember looking at mummy bloggers and thinking, ‘You guys didn’t get properly organised,’” she says. Freegard points out that most early mum bloggers never grew their audience beyond those already involved in parenting online, and struggled to become more professional as a result.

Quite what the future relationships will be between the brands, businesses and audiences for information on parenting has yet to be established. Some users will baulk at being increasingly cast in the role of consumer. At the same time, the networks’ names – Mumsnet, Netmums, Mumslink, Channel Mum – suggest that parenting is still a woman’s domain.

Yet a better balance seems to be emerging in the relationship between digital domesticity and digital independence. Greater gender equality in the distribution of start-up funding, more job vacancies that allow flexible working, and increasing numbers of prominent women in the tech industry are just some of the things the community is striving to promote. In Britain, which has an ageing population and an ever-growing community of carers, the rise of these networks seems sure to be a net gain for us all. 

For more, visit: mumslink.com

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser