The McKennitt settlement: A very private matter

The resumption of business at the High Court last week after a two-month break led to a flurry of writs and settlements – with news organisations paying out tens of thousands over libel claims

But more significant than these was the settlement of a long-running privacy claim between writer Niema Ash and Canadian singer Loreena McKennitt. Ash has decided to drop future appeals, which means a ruling from January this year concerning a book she wrote about McKennitt now stands.

Passages in Ash’s book which dealt with McKennitt’s personal and sexual relationships; her feelings about her fiancé, who drowned in 1998; as well as details of her health, were ruled out of bounds.

The Court of Appeal ruling stated that Ash – as a friend of McKennitt – was bound by a duty of confidence, even though she was not an employee and had signed no confidentiality agreement. Ash will not now publish a new edition of her book and will pay ‘substantial costs”.

Press Gazette contacted Ash to find out why she has dropped the claim – but she was unable to talk to us because of a confidentiality agreement.

Whatever the reason, the outcome means journalists are more constrained now with regards to privacy than they were before.

Media law specialist David Hooper, a partner at Reynolds Porter Chamberlain, said: ‘This clearly has wide implications. It’s a pretty low threshold for what is private information.”

Caroline Kean, media litigation partner at Wiggin, said: ‘As far as journalists are now concerned, the Court of Appeal hearing and judgment stands on privacy matters.

‘What it means is that, as a rule of thumb, information that’s not been put in the public domain by the person being written about themselves, and which relates to things like their medical condition and relationships, is treated as private as a starting point.

‘Unless they put these things in the public domain themselves, or there’s a very real public interest – as opposed to what the public would be interested in – they might be bringing a claim for privacy against you.”

Kean said many seemingly ‘private’stories about celebrities are published with their support because they rely on publicity for their livelihoods.

She said the strength of McKennitt’s case was that she is ‘somebody who has always protected her privacy”.

In terms of the financial risk, Kean said editors should treat privacy as being as potentially costly as libel.

In 2003, Mirror Group Newspapers was faced with a privacy payout of £50,000 to DJ Sara Cox and her husband after publishing in The People pictures of her sunbathing topless on honeymoon. The costs bill was a further £273,000.

Censor

Loreena McKennitt, currently on tour in the US, issued a statement defending her lengthy legal battle to change the book’s content and said she had not sought to censor journalism.

She said: ‘I passionately believe that if an aspect of one’s career places one in the public eye or if extraordinary events make an ordinary person newsworthy for a time, we all still should have the basic human dignity of privacy for our home and family life. At the end of this long process, privacy law has been developed and built upon.

‘This was never a case about suppressing journalistic investigation of matters of genuine public interest, but about protection from publication of deeply intrusive material about my private life and my private grief.”

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