Thursday 19 September 2019

More privacy for celebs after photo-case ruling

THE SEVEN-YEAR ITCH: The sale of the photos from their 2000 wedding spawned a seven-year legal battle for Catherine Zeta-Jones and Michael Douglas
THE SEVEN-YEAR ITCH: The sale of the photos from their 2000 wedding spawned a seven-year legal battle for Catherine Zeta-Jones and Michael Douglas

Colum Kenny

WHEN they sold OK! magazine exclusive rights to snap their glamourous wedding, Michael Douglas, 62, and Catherine Zeta-Jones, 37, cannot have guessed that their big day would still be at the centre of a continuing court case now.

But last week in London, judges of the House of Lords partly reversed an earlier Court of Appeal decision that had itself overturned a High Court judgement in the battle over photos of the couple.

The judges agreed last week that Hello! magazine had violated a cosy agreement between the couple and OK!. Their decision makes it easier for celebrities to control information about themselves.

Going to court seems to have given Michael Douglas a taste for law. It was reported in April that he is to co-produce and star as a lawyer himself in his next film, Tragic Indifference. It will tell the true story of how a paralysed single mother took on Ford Motors for neglecting flaws in the design of four-wheel drive vehicles, and won.

Douglas told Variety last month, "This gives me the chance to play a different kind of character. I played a lawyer once, in Fatal Attraction, and there wasn't much about the law in that picture". Wow! You can say that again, Mick.

Celebrity pics are big business. Just how big was obvious last week when dancer Michael Flatley and his wife Niamh covered their new baby with a blanket rather than let the media see Michael Flatley Jnr. At least in their case they sold the picture rights to Hello! for charity.

Not so Douglas and his Welsh wife. The couple are said to have made themselves stg£1m by giving OK! exclusive access to their nuptials in 2000. But then Hello! spoiled the party. It published images smuggled out past special security that reportedly cost about ?70,000. A disgusted Douglas called its snaps "lascivious and voyeuristic".

If Michael Douglas has a sense of humour, (and judging from his demeanour during the court case in London, he may not), the actor must have smiled when he agreed to make his last film, The Sentinel.

Treated with tragic indifference by many critics, The Sentinel (2006) tells the story of Douglas and Kiefer Sutherland as two US secret service agents trying to detect a mole. If only his own agents had detected the Hello! mole at his wedding.

When the rich and famous cry privacy, it is hard not to be sceptical. And that scepticism is increased by events leading to the resignation of John Browne, BP's chief executive, last week. Caught out having lied to an English court, he had been more concerned about alleging privacy than avoiding perjury.

Lord Browne's lies served to discredit a former lover who sold the story of their relationship to a UK newspaper. Ireland's Peter Sutherland, chairman of BP, is said to have pressured him to quit (at a reported cost to Browne of up to £15.5m in lost pension and bonus payments).

Celebrities will welcome last week's judgement in London, which was a partial victory for OK! but a further tightening of the screws when it come to media reporting of star events.

Not that the rich and famous have no right to privacy. It is just that those who have courted celebrity when it suits them are frequently quick to muzzle the media when it does not. Few resort to the direct action technique of Hugh Grant, who allegedly clobbered a paparazzi photographer last month. Most hire lawyers in suits to shut things down.

The antics of celebrities make it no easier to ensure that the privacy of weaker citizens is protected when such citizens need protection most. The outgoing Irish government's proposals for a privacy law went too far by including secretive gag orders. This ensured that the legislation as drafted was too controversial to make it into the Oireachtas.

But a new remedy may be at hand for ordinary aggrieved citizens. Irish newspapers and periodicals are moving ahead with plans to establish a press complaints council. This is despite the fact that the Government failed to get its long-promised Defamation Bill through even the Seanad, never mind the Dail, before Bertie called the election.

Reform of the defamation law is essential for the smooth working of any press council, which will otherwise have difficulties publishing its findings lest an aggrieved person sues the council for libel or uses its decision to bolster a court plea for damages.

The Press Council is being headed by a former provost of Trinity College Dublin, Professor Thomas Mitchell. He is also on the appointments committee that is now selecting a further six independent lay members of the council as well as six senior media representatives. His colleagues on the appointments committee are former ombudsman Kevin Murphy, Human Rights Commission president Maurice Manning and former Broadcasting Complaints Commission chair Miriam Hederman-O'Brien.

Once in place, the new Press Council will then appoint a special press ombudsman to deal with complaints from the public. The person will need to be someone sufficiently energetic, experienced and fair-minded to satisfy people that the process works. A knowledge of media and public life will be crucial in practice. Otherwise, those who threatened State control could have their hands strengthened.

The Press Council has already set out its stall on privacy. Its code of practice has been published and declares that, "Privacy is a human right, protected as a personal right in the Irish Constitution and the European Convention on Human Rights which is incorporated into Irish law. The private and family life, home and correspondence of everyone must be respected."

The Irish Press Council affirms that, "readers are entitled to have news and comment presented with respect for the privacy and sensibilities of individuals", but also acknowledges, "However, the right to privacy should not prevent publication of matters of public record or in the public interest".

Following the recent death of the Dunne family in Monageer, the media published many images of grieving relatives. Such photographs of emotional funerals seem ever more common. None of the relatives appeared to object in the Dunne case. Indeed, some appeared to welcome photographers into their homes.

This is certainly not always the case, and the Irish Press Council's code of practice says, "Sympathy and discretion must be shown at all times in seeking information in situations of personal grief or shock. In publishing such information, the feelings of grieving families should be taken into account." It adds, "This should not be interpreted as restricting the right to report judicial proceedings."

But in a final flourish that will warm the heart of couples like Michael Douglas and the delectable Catherine Zeta-Jones, the Press Council also says that "taking photographs of individuals in private places without their consent is not acceptable, unless justified by the public interest".

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