11 April 2003 – The High Court had ruled that Catherine Zeta-Jones and Michael Douglas had the right to enter into an exclusive, commercial contract with a media company, and to expect that its terms would not be breached. In a highly competitive market the media know all about the value of obtaining ‘exclusive’ contracts – and rivals are adept at publishing alternative stories to earn their own five-penn’orth from the story.
It sets the lies to the panic set in motion by certain sections of the media that the case was a backdoor means of imposing privacy restrictions on the press. It never was any such thing. This always was about a commercial transaction.
The couple were aware of public interest in what is for everyone an intimate and private event. A wedding after all is a public declaration of a couple’s decision to spend the rest their life together, but it normally takes place under circumstances where only those with invitation are present. The fact that a couple are getting married is what is at issue. Whether the general public has right to see how it is done is quite another. This couple decided that the best way to avoid unnecessary intrusion was to sell rights to formal pictures of the event.
The judgement means that they were within their rights on the ground of commercial confidentiality. The implications for everyone else’s privacy are less clear. As Mr Justice Lindsay indicated, it may be time to clarify precisely what a privacy right means.
Some newspaper editors agree with our view that if there is confusion about the meaning of privacy rights, we may need a legal definition to clarify what protection people can expect under the Human Rights Act or the Data Protection Act, for instance.
What we do not need is a privacy law directed specifically against the media. It would help, or course, if the media were more circumspect about the publication of prurient details of private lives just to make money, and if the practice of cheque-book journalism and the buying of exclusive rights were to become a thing of the past. Sadly, given the nature of the beast, that is unlikely to happen.
Director, The PressWise Trust
(Bulletin No 82)