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Wednesday, 1 August, 2001, 17:55 GMT 18:55 UK
Celebrities versus the long lens
By the BBC's media correspondent Nick Higham

Fame, as any celebrity will tell you, has its downside. The money and the attention are all very well, but those pesky journalists never leave you alone.

Yet as Anna Ford discovered, fame is itself a weapon that can be turned against a celebrity's tormentors in the media.

Last summer the BBC newsreader was on holiday in Majorca with her teenage children and then-partner, the American astronaut David Scott, when a photographer with a long lens on his camera spotted her on a quiet beach and, unbeknownst to Ms Ford, snapped her slapping on the sun cream.

Anna Ford called the Commission a "weak pussycat"
The pictures appeared in the Daily Mail and OK magazine, were seen by fellow guests at the hotel Ms Ford was staying at and, she says, "changed the nature of our holiday".

So she went to the Press Complaints Commission, arguing that since she had deliberately sought out a quiet hotel and a secluded portion of the beach, she was in what the newspaper industry's code of practice defines as a private place - one where she had a "reasonable expectation of privacy".

In those circumstances the code says taking pictures with telephoto lenses without consent is forbidden.

The Commission disagreed. It said the beach was a public place, and rejected her complaint.

So Ms Ford went to court, asking for permission to have the Commission's decision "judicially reviewed".

On Tuesday she lost her case. The judge, Mr Justice Silber, came down resolutely on the Commission's side - despite what he called his "clear and genuine sympathy" for Ms Ford.

He couldn't fault the Commission's decision that this particular beach was a public place.

And he said the Commission's membership (seven editors and nine "lay people") and its expertise made it far better equipped than the courts to resolve the conflict between Ms Ford's right to privacy and the newspapers' right to publish and to free expression.

Propaganda war

The Commission was understandably delighted - and that should have been that.

But Anna Ford doesn't give up so easily. She may have lost the court battle but she looks like winning the propaganda war. After the judgement she went on the offensive, declaring the Commission was a "weak pussycat", and a creature of the newspapers which set it up and pay for it.

On Wednesday morning's Today programme she offered as evidence of an unhealthy closeness between the Commission and the press the fact that its chairman, Lord Wakeham, had supported Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre's application to join the exclusive Garrick Club - though the Commission's spokesman described as "beyond absurd" any suggestion that might affect the Commission's willingness to take a tough line with the Mail.

Ms Ford's fundamental point was that most "ordinary citizens" would agree with her that the photographs were an intrusion into her privacy.

"I am well known and seen regularly on television," she said. "Nevertheless, as a person with a family on family holidays in the school holidays, I have a right to privacy."

Next day the Mirror labelled her just another "whingeing celebrity". But other papers were more sympathetic. They reported her attack on the Commission at length.

A leader in the Independent called the Commission and Lord Wakeham arrogant and suggested they'd reached the wrong conclusion when they considered the original complaint.

"The PCC should not regard [the court's] decision as a vindication of its own judgement," the paper said.

Hornet's nest

So Anna Ford has successfully stirred up a familiar hornet's nest. The chattering classes are once again gunning for the popular press over privacy.

The PCC as usual is caught in the middle, trying to keep both sides happy.

Critics of the press want it to take tougher action; the newspapers themselves naturally want the body they voluntarily support and pay for to see things from their perspective as well.

Perhaps the Commission did call the Ford case wrongly. Perhaps the newspaper code needs amending to strengthen the definition of what is and is not a private place - though the Commission points out that it was strengthened a few years ago, and that as a result British newspapers no longer publish, as they once did, photographs of people in back gardens or behind high walls.

But Anna Ford, though she is highly critical of the Commission, also says that as a journalist she is not in favour of a privacy law behind which powerful people could conveniently hide. Yet undermining the Commission risks making privacy laws more likely.

We may end up with such a law anyway. The Human Rights Act establishes for the first time in UK law a right to privacy. Two other celebrities, Amanda Holden and Les Dennis, also photographed secretly while on holiday, are partly relying on that new act in a case they've brought against Express Newspapers. Unlike Anna Ford they chose to bypass the Press Complaints Commission altogether.

Yet for all its possible faults, the Commission does have one great advantage over the courts: lawyers charge a great deal of money; the Commission is free. For that reason, if no other, it is here to stay.

The BBC's Nick Higham writes on broadcasting

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