June 17, 2024

European Court Rejects Bid to Limit News on Celebrities

The European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France, on Tuesday struck down a legal bid to strengthen the privacy protections for public figures. At the same time, individuals have been turning to the Internet to circumvent British reporting restrictions that protect these figures, turning 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 article in The News of the World, a racy British tabloid, with the headline “F1 boss has sick Nazi orgy with 5 hookers” and was based on video shot secretly 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, saying the paper had not bothered to check the story with him before publishing. A British court called the article a flagrant invasion of Mr. Mosley’s privacy and fined the paper £60,000, or nearly $100,000. The court said 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 on Tuesday, however, such injunctions were being undermined by a force that is arguably more powerful than British privacy law: the Internet.

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 suspected affairs.

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

British newspapers have been lobbying against the use of these injunctions, 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 considering 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.”

While Internet forums like Twitter, under European Union law, have generally not been held accountable for the information posted on them, individuals can be sued for comments that are libelous or that invade others’ privacy. But Twitter, like many other big Internet companies, is based in the United States, putting it outside British jurisdiction.

“People blogging and reporting online are subject to the same laws,” Ms. Melville-Brown said. “It’s just a question of enforcement.”

In his case before the European court, Mr. Mosley, the former president of the International Automobile Federation, argued that British media laws violated the European Convention on Human Rights by failing to protect him from intrusions into his private life. He sought a requirement that newspapers and other media give the subjects of their articles a chance to respond before the papers appeared on the newsstand.

The court rejected Mr. Mosley’s claim, saying there were already sufficient privacy protections in place in Britain.

“Although punitive fines and criminal sanctions could be effective in encouraging prenotification, that would have a chilling effect on journalism, even political and investigative reporting, both of which attracted a high level of protection under the convention,” the court wrote. “That ran the risk of being incompatible with the convention requirements of freedom of expression.”

Mr. Mosley said he planned to appeal the decision to the Grand Chamber of the Strasbourg court.

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

Speak Your Mind