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Friday, 22 December, 2000, 19:49 GMT
Private and confidential
Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones
They can kiss, but will the papers still tell?
Hollywood couple Catherine Zeta-Jones and Michael Douglas are free to sue Hello! magazine over its use of photos from their wedding, an English court has ruled. So are we all now protected by privacy laws?

When celebrity magazine Hello! published pictures of the wedding of Catherine Zeta-Jones and Michael Douglas, it may have unwittingly opened a Pandora's Box for the media industry.

Tom Cruise meets the press
Bye guys
The couple - who sold the rights of their wedding photos to OK!, a rival publication - have been permitted to sue Hello! under English law.

The right to privacy has never before been recognised in an Act of Parliament or in English common law. However, the Hello! case would be brought under the newly adopted European Convention of Human Rights.

Article eight, section one, of the convention simply states: "Everyone has the right for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence."

However, human rights law expert Susan Robinson of Eversheds solicitors says the application of this declaration of rights is anything but simple.

Unresolved questions

"Up till now article eight has been the most talked about section of the Human Rights Act, but the one on which we are least clear where we stand."

We have all long had recourse to the privacy laws set down in the convention, if we are willing to travel the winding road to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

The Human Rights Act - which came into force in October 2000 - allows courts in the UK to apply parts of the convention. This in theory will speed up decisions and reduce costs for a plaintiff.

Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston's wedding
Can only rich newlyweds afford privacy?
But, as with all new laws, there remain many unresolved questions about how article eight will be interpreted by UK judges, says Ms Robinson.

The Act requires "public authorities" to uphold the right to privacy, but what constitutes a public body has yet to be clearly defined in the UK.

The phrase almost certainly means local government organisations, but could also include private companies when they carry out a "public function", says Ms Robinson.

Courts too are "public authorities". Thus obliged to uphold the right to privacy of "private" individuals or bodies, a court may even decide there is a right to privacy where both parties are "private". Confused?

Hello, M'Lud

"The Hello! case could prove helpful in deciding where we are with article eight," says Ms Robinson.

Julian Knowles, a barrister from the Matrix Chambers who is expert in human rights law, says the Court of Appeal ruling on the case should be seen in context.

Press pack
Watch where you point that thing
"I'd be a little bit cautious about describing it as a landmark case. Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones were only given leave to sue Hello!, this is not a fully binding judgement."

It has been suggested the Act favours celebrities such as Zeta-Jones and Douglas, who can give their desire for privacy a physical presence, with a phalanx of security guards.

So when Joe Bloggs marries Jane Smith, they may not need to go to the lengths of forbidding guests to bring cameras to successfully object when a newspaper prints unauthorised photos of them.

Does this promise a flood of complaints from ordinary citizens caught in the lens of photojournalists?

In France, famed for its strict privacy laws, several cases have been won by private individuals who saw their faces splashed across the front pages. Some editors have even begun to blur the features of those in crowd scenes.

Couple sleeping on a beach
In public? Smile, you could be caught on camera
Mr Knowles doubts such a thing would happen in the UK as a result of the Act. In a "public situation" such as walking in the street, you are fair game for the camera.

Publishers have long argued they only invade privacy in the "public interest". When it comes to printing photos of a celebrity nuptials, Mr Knowles says "the public being interested is not the same as public interest".

The case of the Bulger killers, who say they have a right to privacy when they leave custody, could prove more enlightening on this point than a dispute over wedding pictures.

Some newspapers editors argue it is the public's right to know where the two teenage killers - who murdered two-year-old James Bulger in 1993 - will live after their release.

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See also:

21 Dec 00 | Entertainment
Zeta Jones can sue Hello!
04 Dec 00 | Entertainment
Zeta Jones and Douglas' press battle
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