Complaint by Bing, left, failed but PCC gave diners new privacy rights
It’s not one law for the rich and another for the poor at the Press Complaints Commission when it comes to privacy case law.
Billionaire Steve Bing lost out this week when he challenged the Daily Mirror for invading his privacy by publishing his phone number. But the Dorking Advertiser was rapped for taking a picture, without permission, of a couple eating a butterscotch tart in a tearoom.
The latter decision will have repercussions for every newspaper in the country because the Advertiser picture was taken to illustrate a review of a local restaurant and local resident Hugh Tunbridge and his companion were in the background.
Tunbridge complained that in the "Time for Tea" article he and "his dining companion were clearly visible" and the photograph had been taken and published without his knowledge or consent.
The commission has decided an important matter of principle is at stake – that its Code of Practice makes clear that private places are "public or private property where there is a reasonable expectation of privacy".
And it ruled in this case that it considered that "customers of a quiet cafÅ½ could expect to sit inside such an establishment without having to worry that surreptitious photographs would be taken of them and published in newspapers".
The Advertiser, on the other hand, argued that the cafÅ½ was a public place and the pictures were merely illustrative of the restaurant. But it has promised that in future reporters will consult restaurant owners after their meal and obtain permission to take pictures.
Meanwhile, Bing has been told that the commission noted his involvement in a high-profile relationship with actress Liz Hurley, and that he had subsequently publicly argued with her about the paternity of her child. In the commission’s view, scrutiny by the press in these circumstances was inevitable.
Bing’s Los Angeles office switchboard number is not private, the PCC said, and the Mirror’s encouragement to its readers to phone to tell him what a cad he was for "turning his back on" Hurley did not breach the code.
Bing’s solicitors argued that publication of his work phone number was an intrusion into his privacy and had resulted in numerous crank and threatening calls being made. They said the complainant was not a public figure and the only reason for publishing the number was to encourage readers to invade his privacy.
The commission regretted any distress caused but said the phone number was in the public domain and was for the general switchboard at his company. It was not for his personal office, mobile or home telephone.
"Indeed, there was no evidence that Mr Bing had spoken to any of the callers himself," it said. The commission appreciated that receptionists might have felt annoyed or intimidated by the calls but this was "not relevant to Mr Bing’s own privacy".
It was not for the commission to interfere with the Mirror’s decision to encourage people to phone Bing, it ruled.
By Jean Morgan