The Human Rights Act could become a "plaything for the rich and famous" if a ruling by a judge which outlaws kiss-and-tell stories is not overturned. It would hand celebrities and MPs "the power to manipulate their image".
This is the fear of editors and the Press Complaints Commission following a High Court ruling which has banned an unnamed newspaper from publishing details of a famous married footballer’s sexual relationships.
One national newspaper editor told Press Gazette it could mean about 30 to 40 per cent of every story in every newspaper could potentially be a matter for legal action.
The judge, Mr Justice Jack, has decided the newspaper must not publish details of the footballer’s extra-marital relationships with two women and that a law of confidentiality applies to sexual relationships.
He has dismissed any public interest defence for printing "salacious details of his sexual activities" and stated his belief that the law should afford the protection of confidentiality to facts concerning sexual relationships.
The newspaper is to appeal.
The consequences of having the judgment stand as case law are hugely worrying for the press.
PCC director Guy Black said: "This is an extraordinary judgment which would effectively not allow you to talk about the personal relationships of anybody in the public eye.
"It would hand celebrities and MPs power completely to manipulate their own image. It would be exactly what we had always warned the Human Rights Act could become – a plaything for the rich and famous to dictate privacy on their own terms.
"As such, it holes below the waterline the good ship of the public’s right to know.
"It is a judgment which needs to be overturned as soon as possible.
"It won’t bring kiss-and-tell to an end – it will bring to an end three centuries of good, old-fashioned British investigative journalism."
Peter Wright, editor of The Mail on Sunday, told Press Gazette: "If you took the view that you could apply the law of confidentiality in cases like this, it would mean about 30 to 40 per cent of every story, in every newspaper, could potentially be unreportable and a matter for legal action. It’s precisely the sort of thing we were told wouldn’t happen under the Human Rights Act and here it is happening."
The PCC had thought that, with the recent judgment in the case of the surviving Siamese twin, it had managed to regain ground over privacy matters. Mr Justice Jack has just knocked that right back.
Past headline-making indiscretions that would have fallen foul of the ruling include ex-Cabinet Minister David Mellor’s affair with an actress, Fiona Wright’s romps with Ralph ‘five-times-a-night’ Halpern and actress Sally Farmiloe’s tales of her relationship with Jeffrey Archer.
Sunday People editor Neil Wallis said: "We are surely at an extraordinary state of affairs when a law that was originally designed to protect political dissidents and victims of Soviet and Nazi oppression is now being used by judges to protect the sexual peccadillos of a rich and famous married man.
"It’s truly extraordinary that the law is being used and abused in this way by our own courts. God help us if freedom of speech is thrown away for things like this."
By Jean Morgan