Private lives

Independent, Tuesday June 24, 2003

Last week, the select committee for culture, media and sport published its 60-page report on privacy and media intrusion. The eagerly-awaited report calls for legislation to introduce a formal privacy law, and suggests that the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) beef up its code to enable some complainants to proceed immediately to adjudication. It also proposes that the PCC creates a "pre-publication team" to handle calls from members of the public concerned at press intrusion. So far, so good, for celebrities and the general public alike.

What, though, of the children of celebrities? Are they part of the circus too? If the world of celebrity is a strange one, it is all the more bizarre for the offspring of the rich and famous, who like children of everyday parents have little or no say in their destiny even if they want nothing more than to be left in peace to read their school-books. But at the same time as celebrities may cheer the conclusions of the select committee, perhaps we should consider what, if any, rights their children have and whether the select committee's report has done anything to improve their lot.

Simon Smith, managing partner of media firm Schillings, which acts for Sara Cox and Naomi Campbell, is not convinced that children are getting a fair deal. "In the past year I have been asked to advise on a number of private crises affecting the children of parents from varied backgrounds, from a well-known Hollywood actor to a normal British family that had not previously been in the media spotlight," says Smith. "In each case, I've found it worrying that in matters affecting children journalists can make swift, subjective assessments of what is in the public interest."

The 'public interest' is, of course, the key. If we have yet to arrive at a fully-fledged privacy law, preserving the rights to privacy of adults and children alike, there is the PCC and its Code of Practice. Those opposed to legislation on privacy cite the efforts of the PCC and its Code, the "system of self-regulation to which the industry has made a binding commitment," as its preface has it. If it not always expressly stated, underpinning the Code is the idea of public interest: no intrusions into private lives in the absence of 'public interest,' no intrusion into grief or shock unless there is a 'public interest' in doing so, and, "where material about the private life of a child is published, there must be justification for publication other than the fame, notoriety or position of his or her parents" which, in effect, comes down to the 'public interest' again.

Although the select committee's report notes that the 'public interest' must be "exceptionally high" in relation to children, the notion of the public interest is what worries lawyers such as Simon Smith. Article 6 of the Code, dealing with children, starts with a seemingly uncontroversial statement, which purports to restrict media coverage of children's lives. "Young people should be free to complete their time at school without unnecessary intrusion," says Code and yet what would amount to 'necessary' intrusion? That which is deemed in the public interest, presumably, however subjectively determined. "It is this that undermines the good intentions of those who supervise the workings of the Code," says Smith.

Although the select committee's report says little of any real import on children's privacy, Smith nevertheless suggests that it should have an impact on the kind of cases he has been dealing with. "The report is a mirror of society's feelings, and the impetus to think in terms of privacy engendered by it should have a beneficial effect on children caught up in the media circus."

There are any number of examples of celebrity children's lives being hi-jacked by the media. There was Euan Blair, drunk in Trafalgar Square a matter of public interest because if the Prime Minister was unable to supervise his teenage son, how could he manage the country? Never mind that Blair junior was guilty of no more than any average 17-year-old. J.K. Rowling's holiday to Mauritius was less than idyllic in hindsight when she subsequently saw her daughter's image, snapped by a paparazzo, in OK! Magazine, despite the "considerable lengths" to which she had gone to protect her privacy. And last summer there was the case of Tamara Ecclestone, daughter of wealthier-than-thou Bernie.

Ms Ecclestone had turned 18 and left school when The Mail on Sunday published an article headlined "Bernie the Battered Husband." The article was based on an interview with John Keterman, a former boyfriend of Ecclestone's daughter, and it spared few paternal blushes in revealing intimate details of Tamara Ecclestone's relationship, when 17, with Keterman.

Whatever the world thinks of Bernie Ecclestone, who is a stranger neither to controversy nor, indeed, the ruthless ways of commerce, it is not difficult to empathise with his discontent at seeing the demise of his teenage daughter's relationship catalogued in lurid, kiss'n'tell detail. Ecclestone will have regretted the anodyne coffee-table interview he had allowed his daughter to give previously, in which she answered questions on what it was like to be the daughter of a famous father, as if this somehow justified the Keterman revelations. And if the PCC ultimately upheld the complaint he brought insofar as it related to Tamara (rejecting that which concerned himself and his wife, Slavica), Ecclestone no doubt had little truck with the PPC's avowed aim to balance Keterman's "basic right, according to the principle of freedom of expression, to tell his story about his experiences with the Ecclestones."

For although the PCC found that The Mail on Sunday had breached the Code in publishing intimate details of Tamara Ecclestone's personal life, what parent gives a hoot about freedom of expression when their children are suddenly thrown before the unforgiving glare of the media?

Geoff Steward, an intellectual property litigation partner at city firm Macfarlanes, says that given the ongoing development of the law in this area, the best thing a celebrity can do is apply a bit of common sense. "If they keep their children out of the public eye, there will be little danger of them being pursued by the media," he says, adding that those who court publicity will find it harder to persuade a court that they have a right to privacy. Steward also cautions that, as in the Douglas case, the law of confidence is being used to protect privacy, rather than new law being made. "There seems to be a real reluctance in the courts to recognise a right of privacy," he says. "If there is an argument that individuals deserve extended rights, so far policy decisions seem to be confining these to the law of confidence."

It seems, then, that discretion is the better course of self-promotion, at least where children are involved. If you live your life in the public eye, make sure it is just that: your life, and not that of your children.