Privacy and the Press
Joshua Rozenberg Oxford University Press, 270pp, £10.99
Clive Soley MP popped up at Prime Minister's Questions at Westminster on 21 April concerned not with the referendum on the EU, but to draw Tony Blair's attention to the plight of poor Victoria Beckham. Could the Prime Minister consider, he said, making the code of conduct of the Press Complaints Commission enforceable by law, and if not, could newspaper owners and their editors be forced to attend the Palace of Westminster to come before the people to answer questions about their private lives?
Soley was smiling at the time, so we can assume his question was only half serious. The politicians fell about laughing. In contrast, the former Sun editor David Yelland was deadly serious in a recent public debate, when he expressed yet again the argument used to justify no-holds-barred journalism - that "whatever interests the public is always in the public interest".
And judging by the thousands of column inches devoted these past weeks to the Beckhams - to the state of their marriage, advice as to hw 2 dcifr ths txt msgs, and some pretty wild speculative extrapolations - he may have a very good point.
In his excellent book Privacy and the Press, Joshua Rozenberg, the legal editor of the Daily Telegraph, writes for the non-specialist and addresses important issues in the debate about privacy on the one hand, and freedom of expression on the other, which seem so often to get lost in the tangled world of celebrity. He asks: "Do we need a law of privacy to prevent us reading about the private lives of celebrities, what privacies are we entitled to, and should newspapers be allowed to publish the identities of sex offenders and killers?"
I have been in the battle myself and went to the high court to challenge the PCC's ruling on a question of my privacy. A companion and I were photographed without our consent and with the use of a long-lens camera, while on a quiet beach far away from any crowds. The full-page spread appeared in the Daily Mail and in OK! magazine while we were still on holiday. My children were with us, and friends of theirs rang them from London to point out the pics. It felt embarrassing and intrusive.
But the PCC rejected my complaint on the grounds that I could not have had a "reasonable expectation of privacy" on a public beach at the height of the holiday season. Lord Wakeham, then chairman of the PCC, even wrote a newspaper article for the Independent headlined: "You want privacy? Stay off the beach".
The commission's code of practice on privacy states that "the use of long-lens photography to take pictures of people in private places without their consent is unacceptable". I maintained that we had sought privacy and that we had not been bothered by anyone except the secret photographer and the publications, all of them out to make dosh.
In refusing permission for judicial review, Mr Justice Silber said the courts should defer to the commission's decisions, interfering only when it was clearly desirable to do so. I wanted to challenge the PCC's appallingly weak record on upholding its own code.
I clearly made a mistake in not seeking Rozenberg's advice, as he points out that had I tried my luck with a claim for breach of privacy, and sued the two publications, I might have won the case or at least been awarded an out-of-court settlement. Amanda Holden and her then husband, Les Dennis, were paid £40,000 plus costs of more than £75,000 in a settlement with the Daily Star over topless pictures of her at a private villa. Their case, Rozenberg argues, was "something of a weathervane", as the Daily Star would never have made the payments if it had not thought it might lose the case.
The book sifts through a number of prominent cases which are increasing the pressures in favour of a privacy law, as defining the line between what is justified and unjustified intrusion places a strain on our legal system and exercises some of our most senior judges. Indeed, the principle of a privacy law was accepted by the House of Commons culture, media and sport committee last June.
This book shines a clear and welcome light through the undergrowth of legal concepts and principles, to which has been added the recent human rights law. It is written for anyone who wants to understand just where we are today in an area of the law that is constantly shifting.
When the Human Rights Act 1998 came into effect in 2000, there was a spate of high-profile privacy actions, but few of them led to the expected result. In one case after another, "respect for a person's private and family life" was balanced against "freedom of expression". The book's message is that "conflicts between privacy and the press should generally be resolved in favour of the media". Without seeking to defend every excess of the tabloid press, or even the broadsheets, Rozenberg believes that "the justification for legal intervention has to be of a very high order indeed".
I have never wanted a privacy law and now even less so, because of the increasingly important role the press plays in countering a secretive and excessively bureaucratic government. This debate can only really be understood in a legal context, to which this book provides a clear and valuable guide.
Anna Ford is a BBC broadcaster