International Papers

A Model Judgment

Supermodel Naomi Campbell won a pyrrhic victory earlier this week when a British high-court judge found that the tabloid Daily Mirror had breached her right to privacy when it published details of her treatment for drug addiction, but he also declared that Campbell lacked “frankness and veracity,” that she was “manipulative,” and that she had lied under oath during the trial. As far as the British media were concerned, the narrow basis for the decision and the modest damages awarded to Campbell ($3,500 for the breach of confidence and another $1,500 in aggravated damages for a separate Mirror article that compared her to a “chocolate soldier”) represented a victory for press freedom. The judge also ordered the newspaper to pay $214,000 of Campbell’s legal costs, but the Mirror crowed, “the shortfall in her legal bill will grossly exceed the damages.”

The day after the decision, the Mirror dedicated its front page to a picture of Campbell with the headline “JUDGE GIVES LYING DRUG ABUSER £3,500 (But, shh .. don’t tell anyone. You know how Naomi likes to keep these things private.)” The paper’s editorial, headlined “What a Way To Reward This Lying Drug Abuser,” took consolation in the judge’s declaration that the Mirror was right to reveal that Campbell was being treated for addiction, in order to counter her repeated public assertions that she had never used drugs, even though he found that the paper had erred by specifying that she was attending NA, information it obtained covertly. “Unaccountably, the judge went on to decide that we had crossed a line so fine that you need a judicial microscope to see it.” The editorial concluded, “The only real victor was the legal profession. Lawyers stand to make countless millions in fees from rich people rushing to the courts over newspaper articles.”

A decade ago, the British press agreed to self-regulation via the Press Complaints Commission rather than submitting to privacy legislation, but a number of recent cases are testing the degree to which two competing clauses of the European Convention on Human Rights establish a right to privacy. Article 8 guarantees the right to a private life, while Article 10 pledges freedom of expression, and judges are deciding how media-friendly the balance between the two will be. The Guardian declared that the “flood of initial right to privacy cases may slow to a trickle as celebrities realise they are unlikely to be awarded telephone number damages for perceived breaches of privacy. That puts the spotlight back on the press complaints commission, under fire in some sections of the press for an alleged failure to take a tough enough line on tabloid excess.” The Independent, one of the PCC’s most vocal detractors, observed:

The lack of real punitive teeth, the cosy and distinctly untransparent system of “mediation” between newspapers and complainants—particularly rich, famous and titled complainants—and the surreal presence of editors on the Press Complaints Commission (the presence, in other words, of the regulated among the regulators), are hardly calculated to instill confidence outside the media village.

The most rousing declarations of support for the Mirror came from its fiercest competitors, Britain’s other tabloids. Arch-rival the Sun said Campbell, “a liar, a loser and coward,” was the loser. It concluded, “Celebrities have too much power, not too little. They are often weak, useless, arrogant bullies whom the press has a duty to expose. If the legal establishment wishes to gather its tanks on Fleet Street’s lawn we will fire back. Even if it means standing shoulder to shoulder with our most bitter rival.”