Setting the right precedent

The PCC’s ruling on images of Kimberly Fortier strikes a brave blow for press freedom

So many newspaper inches have been devoted to the David Blunkett/Kimberly Fortier story during the past few weeks, it is easy to forget that it was not so long ago that Fortier went to the Press Complaints Commission about her privacy being invaded.

Clearly this was before her friends decided to leak like crazy on her behalf and allow all sorts of private linen to be washed in public.

And also before her husband naïvely admitted trying to orchestrate a media campaign on their behalf, and even more naïvely admitted this was to try to influence the judge dealing with the child access case.

Although the PCC ruling has now been swamped by subsequent claim and counter-claim, it is important not to lose sight of its importance with regard to the taking of pictures of people in public places.

Fortier’s lawyers were fairly confident that the picture of her in a Los Angeles street contravened the Code of Practice on Clause 4 (harassment) and Clause 3 (privacy).

Not only had the lawyers previously contacted the PCC to say their client would not be prepared to speak or be photographed, but they also had the recent European Court of Human Rights ruling on Princess Caroline of Monaco tucked up their sleeve.

This was, in fact, the first ruling on this topic the PCC had made post Caroline and was therefore hugely significant to all areas of the press.

Because English courts are supposed to have regard to ECHR rulings, some lawyers and commentators felt the PCC would not only have to take this into account in future, but would even have to change the Code of Practice to accommodate it.

With its adjudication, which found for the Sunday Mirror , the PCC is in effect saying it does not accept that people should have image rights by deciding which pictures of them should be published.

It even goes as far as to use fairly similar language to the Caroline ruling, but instead makes it clear it felt the picture was in the public interest because it added to the public debate.

I think the commission is right.

This was not a picture of a minor royal going about their everyday business.

This was a picture of a woman involved in a story with the home secretary.

What we didn’t know then, but she certainly did, was that this did not just involve an affair, but issues surrounding paternity and alleged misuse of position.

I have some sympathy for Fortier regarding the picture. It is so much nicer to have pictures of yourself in the press when you are known as a magazine publisher innocuously chatting at glamorous parties; so much worse to be papped on the street in LA where you have fled to escape the stories that you have betrayed your new husband by having a three-year affair with an even more important man.

But Fortier was not hounded in the street. It is true she did not look her best, but she was snapped by one photographer, and the paper completely and sensibly masked out her toddler with the copy.

It is bizarre that someone who makes her living in the media industry should not accept that when you have an affair with someone in the public eye, it brings you into contact with it, whether you like it or not.

That you should go to the PCC and make such a fuss about your privacy just days before raising the stakes by trying to lose a politician his job and access to his child adds insult to injury.

Sensibly the PCC used its first opportunity post-Caroline to lay a marker down for the press on this vital issue. Where it could have been panicked into quasi-adopting the ECHR’s ruling, with all its implications for press freedom, it has strongly come down on the side of freedom of expression.

I t is inevitable at this time of year that media diary columns are full of stories of Scrooge-like bosses cancelling Christmas parties, hampers, wine, bonuses… Not only was it ever thus, but this year companies are actually cutting jobs and casting an even sterner eye over the spreadsheet.

Although journalists are rightly disappointed by some of their management’s behaviour, I suspect they are pretty resigned to it.

But there was one item in a story that made even me do a double take.

This was the piece on a Christmas party in North London and the far from seasonal memo to staff regarding arrangements.

After informing employees that they would need to pay an extra £2 and that they would have to pay for all drinks, it went on to declare in capital letters: “Please confirm you will be attending and if not, the reason why.”

Considering the party was in the evening, presumably out of work time, it does seem a little pre-Glasnost to insist on knowing why people were choosing not to go.

Would staff be honest enough to say they didn’t want to, or would journalistic flair be needed to come up with a suitable excuse? Considering the newspaper group in question was actually doling out £20 a head for staff, it’s a pity they made it sound so un-ho ho ho.

Society of Editors executive director Bob Satchwell challenged me in his recent guest column on this very page to say whether Trinity Mirror editorial director Neil Benson is slick and sexy.

This was after my mild criticism of the society’s recent conference where none of the sessions was chaired by anyone in the regional press.

Benson: sets female hearts aflutter

As outgoing society president, Benson naturally introduced some of the guest speakers – which is not quite what I was trying to get at.

However, returning to the slick and sexy question, I’m sure Neil will not mind me relating an anecdote on this topic from his days in the North East.

While editor of the Evening Chronicle in Newcastle, the Silver Fox (as he was known) often set a few hearts aflutter in the office.

In fact one year the female staff from advertising, newspaper sales and marketing held their very own poll for the best-looking man in the 800-staff building.

Like the recent X Factor , it came right down to the wire, but Benson beat off stiff competition to snatch the accolade from fellow exec and print hardman, Ron Ellis.

So, Bob, according to the female staff in Newcastle, the answer is a resounding “yes”. And, if you use Benson more at the conference next year, I suspect you could even get a fair few of them in the audience to swell your numbers.

Alison Hastings is a media consultant and trainer, and former editor of the Evening Chronicle, Newcastle

by Alison Hastings

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