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Monday, 10 February, 2003, 11:46 GMT
Celebrities and privacy? You asked a barrister
Catherine Zeta Jones

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  • Click here to read the transcript

    Catherine Zeta Jones has arrived at the High Court in central London on Monday where she is making a 500,000 damages claim against Hello! magazine.

    Zeta Jones and her husband Michael Douglas say their private life was violated when the celebrity magazine published unauthorised photographs of their wedding day.

    Guests were banned from taking pictures but undercover photographers gate crashed the wedding and sold photographs to Hello! who had lost out on an exclusive on the ceremony to OK! magazine.

    Their case comes just days after Michael Jackson complained to television watchdogs about a controversial documentary which he claims "utterly betrayed" him.

    What are the issues involved regarding celebrities and privacy? Can stars expect privacy while signing magazine and programme deals?

    Iain Christie is a barrister and co-author of 'The Law of Privacy and the Media' which assesses the law of privacy in England and Wales. He answered your questions in an interactive forum.


  • Transcript:

    Newshost:
    Hello and welcome to this BBC interactive forum. Hollywood glamour came to the High Court in London this morning as Catherine Zeta Jones and her husband, Michael Douglas, arrived to give evidence in their privacy case against Hello magazine. Miss Zeta Jones said she felt "devastated, shocked and appalled" when she realised her big day had been invaded by the paparazzi. But can stars expect privacy while signing magazine and programme deals?

    Well here to answer your questions is barrister Iain Christie, author of the Law of Privacy and the Media. Thanks very much indeed for joining us.

    Let's plunge straight in with a question from Lisa here in the UK. Lisa asks: "Isn't the word "privacy" the wrong word in this case? Wasn't what was violated more easily judged under contract or copyright law? Didn't Hello "steal" the wedding pictures as a deal had already been made between the couple and OK magazine, Hello's rival?" What do you think about that?

    Iain Christie:
    No I think privacy is the right word to describe what this case is about. It's wrong to say that the photographs were stolen. What happened was that the Douglas and Zeta Jones couple had an exclusive deal with OK magazine but that Hello magazine got hold of unauthorised photographs, they weren't photographs that the couple knew were being taken. And so the issue in this case is whether they were entitled to publish those photographs. So the copyright in the photograph that Hello published were owned by the photographer who took those photographs and obviously they were published with his consent. So there wouldn't have been a breach of copyright, there wouldn't have been a breach of the contract which the Douglas's had with OK magazine. So it really is about the extent to which another media organisation is entitled to enter that forum and take photographs of that particular event.

    Newshost:
    Now a number of people questioning this idea of privacy. Bally K. Sidhu from England says: "When Catherine and Michael signed on the dotted line with OK magazine weren't they signing away their privacy?" Everybody asking about privacy when it was apparently such a public event and they'd already signed a deal to make it public?

    Iain Christie:
    Exactly, I think that is the issue that's really at the heart of the case. I think most people would accept that a wedding, in ordinary circumstances, would be a private event, the couple would have control over who they would invite to the wedding and the circumstances in which those guests would come and whether or not they were allowed to take photographs. If you start from the basis that it is a private event then the couple have a certain amount of control over the publicity but of course, as you point out, and as the viewer has pointed out, they gave away quite a lot of their right to privacy through the deal that they had with OK magazine and obviously the question that needs to be resolved in this court case is whether there was any residual element of privacy that they had left.

    Now this case has already been before the courts two years ago when the couple applied for an injunction to prevent Hello publishing the photographs which they had and the court, at that stage, held that there was at least an arguable case, although they refused to grant the injunction, they held that there was an arguable case that the couple's privacy had indeed been invaded. And, as I say, what now needs to be decided is whether that case is made good and if so whether the couple should be awarded any damages.

    Newshost:
    Okay, well Mark Davies - you were talking about the legal status of a wedding - Mark Davies, in the UK says: "Is a wedding considered legally in the US a public event?"

    Iain Christie:
    In the United States, which of course is where this wedding took place, I'm not an expert on New York law but I would imagine, as in the United Kingdom, that it's not, that it's something that is by its nature a private event and the question then is, as I said, have you made it a public event by allowing the media to come and report it?

    Newshost:
    We've had an e-mail come in, while we've been talking, from Gideon B. from London. "Do you believe that there should be a different set of laws for people in the public eye and ordinary people? Do you believe there are different categories of people in the public eye, for example, politicians versus celebrities?" What do you think about the different status or should the law just apply equally to everybody?

    Iain Christie:
    Well the law applies equally to everybody, of course, but what it does recognise is that there is a greater interest in the private lives of public figures and that's precisely why cases like the Douglas's case come to court and why they reach such a high public profile. So what the courts are trying to reconcile is the idea that even a public figure does have a right to privacy against the public interest in receiving information about them. And the court is in the process, at the moment, of going through on a case by case basis trying to lay down some rules and balance the competing interests of an individual's right to privacy and the public interest in receiving information about them and indeed the media's right to freedom of expression to broadcast or to publish that information about them.

    Newshost:
    Well a number of questions about the responsibility of the media. Scott in the UK says: "Do you agree people who violate others privacy for their own financial gain ..." by which, presumably, he implies the media and newspapers, "... should be sent a clear message that it's unacceptable behaviour?" And of course depending on the outcome of this case they may or may not be sent a message along those lines.

    Iain Christie:
    Well it's not really for me to say what messages the court should or shouldn't send out to the media. As I say it's about recognising the conflicting principles. It is right that it's big business, both for the media but also for celebrities - I think that's one of the misunderstood points about some of these cases is that it is actually part of a celebrity status, that there is a huge financial interest in controlling publicity about themselves, that's what motivates them to bring these kind of cases. So there is a very high stake financially on both sides.

    Newshost:
    John Suffield from Birmingham in the UK asks a very simple question: "Should journalists be held more accountable for their actions?" Do you think that the regulations are strong enough?

    Iain Christie:
    There is a lot of regulation, there's a lot of self-regulation, as you know, through various regulators' codes, the Press Complaints Commission's own code and various broadcasting codes lay down requirements pertaining to privacy, when it's permissible or not for the media to interfere with a person's private rights. And generally, by and large, there is always a public interest - a justification that the media have to make out for any broadcast or publication which they've made. So again one of the issues that's being fought out through the courts at the moment is the extent to which that self-regulation, that self-imposed regulation, is sufficient to protect individual rights or whether the courts themselves need to develop the case law so as to give remedies where the regulators themselves don't do that.

    Newshost:
    Cathy in London asks an interesting question: "Do you have more of a case if you keep things private and then your privacy is compromised?" If no deal had been signed would there be a stronger case?

    Iain Christie:
    I think that is clearly the case. As I said a moment or two ago if you start from the basis that this is a private occasion, a private event, then one would assume that if there was no publicity to be given to it then the residual elements of privacy would be even stronger than where you've signed away lots of those private rights. So I'm sure that's right.

    Newshost:
    Because Martina in the UK emphasises this point by asking this question: "How can people who sell their own privacy for financial gain be protected by the courts?" And that's really the nub of the issue isn't it?

    Iain Christie:
    It is and as I say there's a lot of money involved, there's big business interests on both sides, and I think it is a little understood aspect of the law of privacy that you have this element of controlling publicity, it's not a question of simply relinquishing all rights, although that's one of the issues that obviously this case is going to be looking at. Is there any element of privacy that's worth protecting left which has been violated by Hello magazine?

    Newshost:
    Just to talk about a slightly different story. The Michael Jackson documentary that caused quite a lot of controversy. He's complained about the documentary, it's a classic case of he invited in the cameras to film him and his family over a number of months and now he feels betrayed by what was broadcast. It raises a number of issues, doesn't it, about what kind of control celebrities have when they've invited the media to cover them and how much they think should be kept private when they've obviously made so much public?

    Iain Christie:
    Well I think here where you've got a journalist - a celebrity inviting a journalist or the media in that is much more a question of copyright or contract. I mean Michael Jackson would have been well advised, as I'm sure he did, to have an agreement with the journalist and with the broadcaster of the programme saying exactly what should and should not be broadcast. So I'm sure in his circumstances if he feels aggrieved it would be a question of going back to the look at what was the nature of the arrangement between them - it would be difficult in those circumstances to think of there being an invasion of privacy.

    Newshost:
    So do you think it was likely that a very tight contract was drawn up, which both the journalist and Michael Jackson signed in this case? I mean presumably the lawyers are pouring over the details of that now.

    Iain Christie:
    I'm sure there must have been some understanding which would inevitably have been reduced to a written contract, one would presume, I mean these things normally are done that way.

    Newshost:
    James Kempster from England says: "How far away are we as individuals from being able to sue each other for breach of privacy?" This case at the High Court is a kind of ground breaker isn't it?

    Iain Christie:
    This case is only the second case since the Human Rights Act was introduced and that's the Act which actually gives people, for the first time, a right to respect for their private life, so called. For many years there's been a breach of confidence, which is essentially an equitable remedy on which people have been able to prevent publication of information that is imparted in circumstances of confidence. And what the courts are doing now is to look more to the nature of the information itself, forget so much the circumstances in which the information was conveyed, whether there was a confidential relationship, but is the information itself which is being published essentially of a private character and would publication of that information be offensive to a person of ordinary sensibilities? This is the kind of definition that the courts are coming up with now. And there is no reason why an action couldn't be brought against other private individuals. And in the current case, for example, although the main defendant is Hello magazine, there are a number of individuals who are also party to the action, including the photographer himself, so there's no reason why individuals as opposed to companies or the media organisations can't themselves be liable.

    Newshost:
    For those people who wonder why the Hollywood couple are at the High Court today, Mike England asks a pertinent question: "Why has this case even come to court, it looks like a waste of the public's money?" I mean some people aren't going to have much sympathy are they?

    Iain Christie:
    No I think - well of course there's always public money involved in court cases through the running of the court system but otherwise it is an entirely privately funded piece of litigation, so I don't think that's a big issue.

    Newshost:
    How do the costs pan out in a case like this?

    Iain Christie:
    Well it usually goes that the party that wins the case is awarded their costs and the other side would have to pay their costs. That's not always the case, it does depend, these days, on whether the case was meritorious as well but that's the normal rule. Remind me of the question because it did raise a ...?

    Newshost:
    Why has it even gone to court, isn't it a waste of the public's money? I mean is it important enough as a principle to justify the case going to court, even if you don't have much sympathy with Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta Jones?

    Iain Christie:
    Well that of course is up to the litigants, no one's forcing them to bring the litigation. But there are important principles, I think, that arise out of this case. As I said before the - one of the main issues, wherever there is a threatened invasion of privacy, is whether the individual concerned can get an injunction to actually prevent the information coming out in the first place and in an area like privacy that is a very, very important remedy because it's often felt that once the information is out there it's too late to do anything, you can't put the genie back into the lamp, it's known. And so at this stage in the proceedings where that remedy has already been denied to Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta Jones the question is well should they still nevertheless be compensated for any damage that may have been caused to them through the publication of these unauthorised photographs?

    And as I say the principles are weighing up the competing rights of freedom of expression and privacy and it's a process in which the courts are really just beginning to lay down the guidelines, we've had two or three cases so far - the Naomi Campbell case was one and the case concerning the footballer Gary Flitcroft was another where the courts, as I say, are really now trying to tackle these principles. And it's important that the law is laid down with sufficient clarity to guide not only people like myself when they come to give advice to clients but also for individuals themselves to know exactly whether their conduct is lawful or unlawful and when there's an expectation of privacy or not.

    Newshost:
    James Kempster from London says: "In your opinion is the British media above the law? Do you believe voluntary regulation is successful?"

    Iain Christie:
    Well they're certainly not above the law. There is a situation at the moment in which the media by and large regulate themselves, certainly that's the case for the published media, for the newspapers, and as I say there is a tension between that and the extent to which the courts are themselves prepared to give remedies, when an individual feels that their complain to the PCC - the Press Complaints Commission - they haven't had a sufficient remedy from that. Impacting on this recently has been a European Court of Human Rights judgement in which they have held that those regulators because they don't have sufficient powers to award compensation or to grant an injunction can't themselves give an effective remedy where someone's privacy has been invaded. And it will be interesting to see how the Government implements that particular judgement, whether it will require the regulators to assume some greater powers so that they can give those kind of remedies and even where they uphold the privacy complaint or not and if they don't then it's fairly to be presumed that the courts themselves will step in.

    Newshost:
    Thanks very much indeed. Well we all await eagerly the result of that High Court case but that's all we have time for, for now. My thanks to our guest Iain Christie and to you for all your questions. From me Susanna Reid and the rest of the team goodbye.


  • A court case involving Hello! magazine and two of Hollywood's biggest stars could make legal history, writes media correspondent Nick HighamLegal history?
    Nick Higham on the Zeta Jones court case
    See also:

    10 Feb 03 | Entertainment
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