A question of privacy

17 January 2002 – The latest adjudications to emerge from the Press Complaints Commission deserve careful scrutiny. Both concerned female television personalities who complained about press intrusion into their private lives, with the publication of salacious details. One was upheld, the other rejected.

In the first case, Vanessa Felz protested that two articles in the Sunday Mirror and one in The Mirror, published in July and August last year, were not only inaccurate but that the sexual relationship with her alleged lover, Fitzroy Charles, (who was quoted as saying “We lay on her bed, her hands crept over my chest – all Vanessa ever wanted from me was sex”) never existed.

The question of whether or not the stories were true would seem to be relevant. However, the PCC admitted: “Clearly the Commission – which does not have the power of subpoena or cross-examination – was not in a position to decide whether or not such an intimate relationship had taken place.” So it would seem that in matters concerning accuracy – one of the key provisions of the Code of Practice – the PCC simply takes a guess at which side is telling the truth.

The newspapers contended that since Ms Felz was a “celebrity of her own making” who had written books about herself and spoken often and publicly about her marital difficulties, it was inevitable that the media should be interested in her private life, given that she had placed that life into the public domain in great detail. Her solicitors responded that none of this was an excuse for inaccurate journalism.

What did the PCC decide? Wait and see.

The second case was a complaint by Granada plc on behalf of Miss Naomi Russell (of Coronation Street) that an article in the Sunday Sport in November last year intruded into her private life. The article had been headed: “Naomi’s head went bob-bob-bobbie on my nobbie!”

This time there was no suggestion that the article, concerning a previous relationship between Miss Russell and a man named Paul Deighton, was inaccurate; merely that it intruded on her private life.

The newspaper contended, as had the Sunday Mirror, that this was a case where the complainant, in order to further her career, had spoken in depth about her private life in previous interviews with the media. It was therefore unreasonable to deny Mr. Deighton the right to earn income by discussing his own private life with the media.

What did the PCC decide?

In a lengthy adjudication, the PCC rejected Vanessa Felz’ complaint, saying: “Privacy is a right which can be compromised and those who talk about their private lives on their own terms must expect that there may be others who will do so, without their consent, in a less than agreeable way.” It concluded: “The Commission was therefore satisfied that the newspaper had taken account of all the circumstances and adequately balanced the complainant’s right to privacy with Mr Charles’s right to freedom of expression.”

There may be a certain rough justice in this: the principle that those who live by publicity must be prepared to be hoist by their own petard. But it does leave open the question of accuracy, and the PCC’s admitted inability to establish facts. Is it time for the PCC to invest in an investigative reporter of its own?

So what of Miss Russell, who had also published details of her private life previously, and was not disputing the facts of the Sunday Sport story? Her complaint was upheld. Said the PCC: “In this case there was no evidence that Miss Russell had ever discussed such intimate matters [the newspaper said she had] and the material that the newspaper published about her private life was completely disproportionate to that already in the public domain. The story was salacious and intrusive and there was no public interest in publishing it in such detail.”

As for Mr. Deighton’s freedom of expression – which the PCC had upheld so strenuously in the case of Mr Charles – “He could have discussed his relationship with the complainant without revealing such personal details.”

The moral of all this would seem simple: so far as the PCC is concerned, you can write what you like about a public figure – as long as you get it wrong.

Bill Norris
Associate Director

(Bulletin No 57)

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