Changing the rules*

Can your boss's tipple be an official secret? And are you entitled to video your neighbour's pruning

One of my friends works at a jobcentre. His boss has always been fond of a drink, and it's started to become a real problem - offensive to staff and clients, and even dangerous at times. The ordinary complaints procedure doesn't want to know (apparently), but my friend has signed the Official Secrets Act and fears reprisals if he goes to the local papers. Should he worry?

Joan Evans, Northumberland

Please reassure your friend. The Official Secrets Act would be violated only if he furnished the press with information that related to "security or intelligence", or if his disclosure was "damaging" to UK interests. Prosecutions typically involve top-level leaks - such as a trial due to begin at the Old Bailey next month, concerning a secret discussion between George Bush and Tony Blair in 2004 at which the US president supposedly revealed his desire to bomb al-Jazeera. Such disclosures distress the authorities no end - so much so, that the Home Secretary, John Reid, has proposed that people charged under secrecy laws be forbidden from even mentioning state misconduct in their defence. But such political issues are irrelevant to your friend. Embarrassing a mere civil servant is no crime.

Disclosures to the media that raise no national security issues in fact enjoy considerable protection. Assuming that your friend is right that an internal complaint would be futile, he would probably be immune from retaliation thanks to the Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998 - a whistle-blower's charter, passed at a time when the government felt less concerned to conceal institutional shortcomings than it does today. All that your friend would need to prove, in order to obtain compensation or reinstatement, is that he went to the press in good faith, and that he reasonably thought his boss's misconduct serious enough to warrant publicity. Whatever a hypothetical jury might make of leaks about bombing al-Jazeera (it wouldn't be wise to speculate about that!) your friend need not fear the heavy hand of the law.

Having recently been widowed, I decided to have a video surveillance system fitted to my house. All I wanted was peace of mind, but my elderly neighbour has apparently decided my intentions are far more sinister. He's served a complaint on me, alleging that my "malicious monitoring and recording of his gardening movements" is a private nuisance. Do I really have to go to court??

Security-conscious, Cheltenham

It is generally advisable to do so, and I think it important that you take the offensive in this case. I urge you to remind the magistrates of the case of Browne v Flower ([1911] 1 Ch 219) - which establishes that householders enjoy an unrestricted right to peer through their neighbours' windows - and to argue that your camera can hardly be prevented from doing less. Even if your intentions were in fact hostile, they would be irrelevant. Although a prurient curiosity in your neighbour's body could expose you to criminal charges, you can try to steal his soul and the civil law would not care.

Your neighbour might try to rely on the Human Rights Act 1998, but your freedom to keep him under surveillance trumps his right to privacy. Taking unwelcome photographs can, admittedly, have legal consequences - remember Catherine Zeta-Jones and Naomi Campbell winning actions against Hello! and the Daily Mirror. But though he may argue that your relationship is akin to supermodel and paparazzo, a properly directed bench would disregard that analogy. It is publication, rather than photography, that the law controls. So long as you resist any temptation to upload or disseminate clips of his mowing and pruning activities, you may monitor him as much as you please.

Sadakat Kadri is a barrister and author of "The Trial: a history from Socrates to O J Simpson" (Harper Perennial, 2006). Send your civil liberties and human-rights dilemmas to: Changing the Rules, New Statesman, 52 Grosvenor Gardens, London SW1W 0AU. This column appears fortnightly

*"The rules of the game have changed" Tony Blair, August 2005

Sadakat Kadri is a human rights barrister at Doughty Street Chambers and a writer. His most recent book is The Trial: A History from Socrates to O.J. Simpson, and he is a past winner of the Spectator/Shiva Naipaul Memorial Prize for travel writing.

This article first appeared in the 18 September 2006 issue of the New Statesman, Shopping: How it became our national disease