April 17, 2024

British Public Figures Struggle to Protect Privacy

PARIS — For British celebrities and soccer stars who “play away,” as Fleet Street puts it, the hope of mounting a cover-up is fading fast.

The European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg on Tuesday struck down a legal bid to strengthen the privacy protections offered public figures. At the same time, individuals have been turning to the Internet to circumvent British reporting restrictions that protect them, turning the blogging site Twitter into a sort of WikiLeaks for celebrity tell-alls.

In the Strasbourg decision, the European court rejected a bid by Max Mosley, former president of the governing body of Formula One auto racing, to require news organizations to notify the subjects of articles before publication. The court said such a requirement would have had a “chilling effect” on freedom of speech.

The lawsuit stemmed from a 2008 story in The News of the World, a racy British tabloid, that was headlined “F1 boss has sick Nazi orgy with 5 hookers” and was based on video footage secretly shot by one of the participants.

Mr. Mosley, a son of Oswald Mosley, former leader of the British Union of Fascists, sued The News of the World, complaining that the paper had not bothered to check the story with him before publishing. A British court agreed, calling the article a flagrant invasion of Mr. Mosley’s privacy and fining the paper £60,000, or nearly $100,000, saying there was no evidence of Nazi behavior in the sex session, and thus no justification for publication.

When confronted by tabloids with similar exposés, or simply with allegations of garden-variety extramarital affairs, many British celebrities have gone to court to secure injunctions against publication. In some cases, these injunctions even bar newspapers from acknowledging the existence of the court order.

Even before the European court ruling Tuesday, however, injunctions and superinjunctions were being undermined by a force that is arguably more powerful than British privacy law: the World Wide Web.

Since the weekend, Twitter has been abuzz with speculation about public figures who may have obtained such court orders. An unidentified user of the service posted six short messages in which he or she listed well-known soccer stars, actors and others who had supposedly received injunctions preventing the press from reporting on alleged affairs.

By Tuesday evening, the Twitter feed had attracted about 80,000 “followers.”

While most of the people named by the Twitter user kept their silence, one of them, the socialite Jemima Khan, used her own Twitter account to deny a tweet that she had obtained a superinjunction to prevent publication of a compromising photograph of herself and Jeremy Clarkson, star of the BBC series “Top Gear.”

“OMG — Rumour that I have a super injunction preventing publication of ‘intimate’ photos of me and Jeremy Clarkson. NOT TRUE!” she tweeted, adding: “I have no super injunction and I had dinner with Jeremy and his wife last night. Twitter, Stop!”

British newspapers have been lobbying against the use of superinjunctions, denouncing them as one of a number of perceived threats to freedom of speech in Britain, along with the country’s tough libel laws.

“Highlighting the perceived evils of British privacy and defamation law certainly seems to be paying off for Fleet Street,” said Amber Melville-Brown, a media specialist at the law firm Withers in London.

The government recently introduced legislation to overhaul the defamation laws. On Tuesday, officials said they were weighing changes to the privacy laws, too, in an effort to bring them into the digital age.

“We are in this crazy situation where information is available freely online that you are not able to print in newspapers,” Jeremy Hunt, the British culture secretary, said. “We are in a situation where technology, and Twitter in particular, is making a mockery of the privacy laws that we have, and we do need to think about the regulatory environment. It should be Parliament that decides where we draw the line on our privacy law.”

Article source: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/11/business/media/11privacy.html?partner=rss&emc=rss

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