Phone-hackers face prison sentences but why are the activities of paparazzi not curtailed by criminal sanctions, asks media guru Paul Tweed.
Although the outcome of the Rebekah Brooks trial will have inevitable repercussions, nonetheless media fatigue and public disinterest has already set in with phone hacking – which makes for even less appetite for the pursuit of the numerous other potential claims in the background. Individuals from all walks of life have raised potential claims on the basis that they remain convinced that articles published about them were based on information that could only have been obtained from an interception of their voice messages.
However, as phone numbers of these potential victims have not been found in the notes or diary entries of the News of the World’s investigators, the resultant absence of any substantive evidence from the records obtained by the Met makes it extremely difficult, if not downright impossible, to take the matter further. As the clamour for action from the public and politicians begins to wane, the prospect of new evidence coming to the fore appears even less likely.
The News of the World’s publishers have been fighting a vigorous rear-guard battle for closure in order to draw a final line under their costly exposure. As time goes on and some degree of retribution has been seen to have been delivered in the Courts, the public’s gradual loss of interest is perhaps understandable. The Milly Dowler case created international outrage and a fundamental moral belief that enough was enough and that action had to be taken, in contrast to the lack of empathy that had prevailed across the board in the previous decade. And so the full extent and scale of this activity may never be known, notwithstanding the most recent high profile criminal trial spanning a period of seven months.
In reality, the battle has since moved on from “listening in” to “looking in”, with the equally intrusive photo lenses replacing voicemail hacking as the next threat to individual privacy. Nowadays the public can no longer relax even in their own back gardens where they believed they had privacy from the more ruthless tabloids, who will go to whatever lengths to get one up on their competitors.
The Duchess of Cambridge has been the most high profile victim of surreptitious photography in recent times, but nobody in the public limelight, for even a fleeting moment, is safe from the prying lens of the paparazzi. Some of the online media outlets are indirectly encouraging these intrusions by their willingness to pay ever increasing fees for what are regarded as prized photographs that attract readers.
And it’s not just the celebrities and members of the Royal Family who are in the firing line, but now it is their children who form part of the collateral damage. In the past couple of years defamation cases against print media have been overtaken by breaches of privacy through dissemination of online photography, as has been borne out by the increasing number of such cases now reaching the Courts.
The PCC is in its final days with IPSO lurking in the shadows. The former never had an appetite, nor apparently a remit, to deal with online photographic harassment. Unfortunately the latter appears unlikely to come up with remedies for dealing with privacy breaches of this nature, which are not even recognised, never mind conceded, by a number of media outlets.
Damage to a reputation can be vindicated by an award of monetary damages. However with photographic intrusion, once the privacy horse has bolted, then it is too late for any effective remedy. Often, all that can be done is to secure the belated removal of the offending photograph, prevent further dissemination and get an acknowledgement of the publisher’s wrongdoing on the PCC’s website. The only other alternative is a full blooded privacy action which is beyond the financial means of most of the population. In any event, the damages awarded are usually modest and disproportionate to the distress inflicted, and it is left to courageous, and yes wealthy, litigants such as JK Rowling and Paul Weller’s family, to fight to put down a marker for the press.
Perhaps we will have to wait for the publication of a particularly emotive and scandalous photograph of a young child or other innocent, before the groundswell of public opinion will encourage criminal sanctions. Only then will paparazzi intrusion be treated in the same way as some of the perpetrators behind the phone hacking scandal. Perhaps only time, and public reaction, will tell!