Privacy law in UK is just a myth, says Lord Wakeham

Wakeham: no ‘two-tier’ system

The chairman of the Press Complaints Commission has sought to debunk two myths about the privacy of the individual: that there is already a fully fledged privacy law in place and that there is now a two-tier system of redress – "the Human Rights Act for toffs and the PCC for everyone else".

Lord Wakeham has denied that "ranks of celebrities and public figures will be stampeding off to the courts ignoring the PCC in their unseemly haste" to complain about intrusion of privacy under the act.

The myth has spread in the wake of an Appeal Court judgment in December 2000 in the case of Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones which left the actors free to sue Hello! for printing pictures of their wedding after OK! had spent £1m on an exclusive deal.

One appeal court judge said that they had a powerful prima facie claim to redress for invasion of their privacy "as a qualified right recognised and protected by English law".

Wakeham argued, in a speech to the Institute of Practitioners of Public Relations this week, that since the act came into force in October 2000, not one judge or court had said it "creates" a privacy law.

"Fewer than 10 cases in that time have gone to court – not one of them producing anything approaching a final ruling," he said. And there was no evidence that people have "bypassed" the PCC to go to the courts.

"Last year, we received a record number of 520 complaints related to privacy. That rather puts the Human Rights Act into perspective," he added.

As for the two-tier system, in the past year the commission had dealt with complaints from more celebrities and public figures than ever before – from JK Rowling, Cilla Black, the cast of Emmerdale, Vanessa Feltz, Tony Blair, the Lord Chancellor, Prince William, Primrose Shipman and Ian Brady.

In every case bar two, Anna Ford and Sara Cox, there had been no subsequent legal action.

The PCC chairman accused "those with a financial gain to be made" of spreading the myths.

And he said there had been a misinterpretation of the Douglas/Zeta-Jones ruling. Throughout the case, he stressed, the question of privacy was subsidiary to breach of confidence, malicious falsehood, unlawful interference with contractual relations and breach of copyright.

But the outlook for freedom of the press was not entirely rosy, Wakeham warned. There was great potential danger if the courts sought to grant injunctions restraining publication on an interpretation of the Code of Practice which could at best be perfunctory.

"In the coming months, there will be a number of important cases before the courts, certainly on the issue of injunctions – which will have substantial, long-term ramifications for press freedom. If these decisions are in general conflict with the PCC, then a serious situation may arise."

By Jean Morgan

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