Guest blog: Trimingham case could be first of many harassment claims against the media

In a guest blog media lawyer Callum Galbraith, from Hamlins discusses some of the issues for journalists raised by Carina Trimingham’s privacy and harassment claim against Associated Newspapers over its coverage of her extra marital affair with former Cabinet Minister Chris Huhne.

Miss Trimingham’s claim is said to be the first time that the claim of harassment by media under the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 has been considered at trial. This aspect of the claim appears to relate to the information which was published, not the means used to obtain it.

The claim relates to articles published by the Daily Mail following the revelation of Chris Huhne’s affair with Miss Trimingham. Complaint is made, in particular, to a number of references in the stories published to her relationships prior to her relationship with Chris Huhne. For instance, articles referred to her as Mr Huhne’s ‘boyish ‘bisexual lover”and one story wrote of the ‘life and very different loves of the PR girl in Doc Martens”.

The Daily Mail argues that the stories were in the public interest, predominantly on the basis that at the last election Miss Trimingham helped to cultivate the image of Chris Huhne as being a family man.

That will therefore form a significant front of the battleground at trial. Additionally, consideration will be given to whether the numerous articles amounted to harassment of Miss Trimingham. It is reported that there were over 65 articles published which referred to Trimingham.

The Protection from Harassment Act 1997 makes it unlawful to pursue a course of conduct which amounts to harassment and which a person knew or ought to know amounts to harassment of another.

Case law has shown that the publication of true or false information is capable of amounting to harassment.

The leading case related to whether racist criticism of an individual was foreseeably likely to stimulate a racist reaction on the part of the readers and cause distress and the Court found that there was an arguable case. That case is clearly analogous to Trimingham’s but in the Trimingham case the comments relate to sexuality as opposed to race.

The courts have also established in other cases that spying on individuals can amount to harassment. In addition, the courts have also determined that the fact that a target or victim does not know of the conduct until after it has happened does not necessarily mean that an individual has not been subjected to harassment. This is significant in the context of phone-hacking.

There is constant discussion, in the context of the Leveson Inquiry, as to reforms necessary to bring the media into line and to determine what is acceptable behaviour and what is not. The debate continues as to whether there should be further statutory regulation of the media.

However, the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 is, relatively speaking, a piece of legislation which is little used in relation to the context of the gathering and obtaining of information (as opposed to the pursuit of individuals by paparazzi to obtain photograph). It is likely to prove a fruitful area for further claims against the media.

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