A furious behind-the-scenes court battle over snatched pictures of surviving Siamese twin Gracie Attard has ended with a judge backing News International against the Manchester Evening News.
The legal drama began after NI, on behalf of the News of the World, went to court last Friday and succeeded in getting lifted a previous injunction banning Gracie from being identified.
This gave the green light to the cross-media deal in which her parents, Michaelangelo and Rina, had agreed to sell their story and exclusive pictures to the NoW, Mail on Sunday, Now magazine and Granada TV for a reputed £350,000.
But unbeknown to News International, MEN photographer Paul Burrows had the previous Wednesday got pictures across a car park of Gracie with her parents outside St Mary’s Hospital in Manchester as they said their goodbyes to medical staff.
MEN editor Paul Horrocks sent a journalist and lawyer to observe NI getting the injunction lifted. He told Press Gazette: "News came through that the judge had lifted the order. Bingo! We stopped the presses, replated with three pages of pictures and stories. We had a world exclusive without paying a penny and got 85,000 copies out on the street."
But just as Horrocks was flooded with juicy six-figure offers for his exclusive pictures, NI returned to court and after three hours of legal argument the judge, Mr Justice Bennett, banned the MEN from any further publication of its pictures. He also rejected an application from the Sunday Mirror to publish a photo of Gracie while conjoined.
Horrocks said: "Without us present, the judge was persuaded it was in the best commercial interests of the child to bar any other media from using the pictures without the parents’ consent."
On Saturday, the court was reconvened for a joint challenge by the MEN and the Mirror, which also wanted to run the pictures. Another three-hour hearing took place and again the judge rejected their pleas to publish.
NI company solicitor Daniel Taylor said: "The judge expressly stated he was not deciding between the commercial interests of the competing media organisations but in the best interests of the child." Taylor said the judge’s reasons for upholding the ban were:
lThe MEN photographer was in breach of the Code of Practice because he took a picture of a child without her parents’ consent.
lPublication of either the MEN or Mirror pictures could harm Gracie’s interests, particularly financially.
lWhile freedom of expression under the Human Rights Act must be given full weight, the judge said he had to conduct a balancing exercise and that balance came down in favour of the child’s interests, particularly since the monies were to be used to pay for her future medical treatment.
The ruling has left Horrocks fuming: "There is huge and genuine public interest in this case. We have a world-beating hospital, a world-beating operation and our pictures were showing a joyful scene with mum and dad and a perfectly healthy baby.
"That to me is not intrusive. There was no question here of creeping around inside hospitals taking unauthorised pictures."
"What it comes down to is the judge has said, ‘I’ve got the best interests of the child at heart, therefore I submit to the argument that the child may get less commercial money because of a damaged exclusive than otherwise’.
"It is up to other media to honour the £350,000. If you say you are going to pay the money just pay it."
Max Clifford, who represents the Attards, has complained to the Press Complaints Commission on behalf of the family about the MEN pictures. It is not a clear-cut case for the PCC, which will have to consider whether the welfare of Gracie was affected by their publication. It must also take into account the fact that her parents had agreed to sell pictures of her.
By Jon Slattery