In the public interest or of interest to the public?

 

By Hasnain Shah

English Law recognises that an individual has a right to a respect of his privacy and family life. The potentially conflicting right of freedom of speech is also recognised by the law and is a fundamental right in the UK. When the conflicting rights clash, a balance must be struck between them.

In weighing the rights against one another, the key consideration is whether it is in the public interest for information to be disclosed concerning an individual’s private life. However, what precisely constitutes public interest is where the problem lies. There is no legal definition under statute and previous cases have only served to confuse further.

In one of the first high profile privacy cases, involving Naomi Campbell, it was held that there was a breach of privacy by the Mirror Group for publishing pictures of the supermodel attending a drug rehabilitation clinic as it was not of sufficient public interest. Following this, Lord Coe failed to secure an injunction to prevent an article about an extra marital affair from being published as this was considered to be in the public interest.  Not long ago we have seen John Terry being granted an injunction only for it to be subsequently lifted by the High Court. Even more recently, it has been reported news that Ryan Giggs was granted an injunction to prevent news circulating about an alleged extra marital affair.

Each case seems to bring with it a different interpretation of when the public interest defence to breach of privacy can be used. A lack of a precise meaning has seen a grey area develop in the distinction between something in the public interest or just simply interesting to the public. This is a confusion that needs to be sorted out and clear guidelines must be introduced to prevent further controversy.

It would be appropriate to observe the comparison to foreign jurisdictions, Sweden being a case in point.  Whilst the Swedish press are protected by a powerful public interest defence, who can be classed as a public figure is significantly different. A public figure typically includes politicians, government officials and corporate heads.  In stark contrast to the UK, popular actors, sportsmen and singers are not afforded the same status. So it would seem that articles which are interesting to the public but are essentially unimportant and serve no real public purpose are not protected under the public interest defence.

With a review of privacy laws seemingly imminent, it may very well be in the public interest for great attention to be placed on the Swedish system and have the appropriate changes implemented.

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