Meghan Markle and the trouble with human rights law

13 February 2021

3:28 AM

13 February 2021

3:28 AM

Meghan Markle hailed her victory in a high court privacy case as a ‘comprehensive win’ over the Mail on Sunday’s ‘illegal and dehumanising practices’. But is that right? If you dig beneath the headlines and read the judge’s ruling, it becomes clear that her victory has much to do with a burgeoning expansion of privacy rights based on human rights law. This change in the law has taken place with little fanfare and the victim – the press – generate little sympathy. Yet it is something that should worry any supporter of free speech.

Until about twenty years ago, the English courts were pretty robust about celebrities’ privacy suits, then known as actions for breach of confidence. A typical example was a 1977 episode where a well-known pop group indignantly sought to stop the Daily Mirror spilling the beans about their private high jinks. A Court of Appeal judge tersely told them that even if someone was breaking confidence, high-living celebrities like them who sought the limelight and courted good publicity could not generally complain if someone publicised less complimentary facts about them.

So what has changed? The explanation here lies fairly squarely with human rights activism. As early as 1970, the Council of Europe, the body behind the European court of human rights, had passed Resolution 428 saying that the human right to privacy needed to be put to work to curb what it clearly saw as a vulgar and unsavoury mass media.

By 2004, the court had enthusiastically taken the hint. It decided that Princess Caroline of Monaco had a human right to suppress paparazzo photographs of her in public places, sniffily adding that free speech was all very well, but not really for publications ‘of which the sole purpose was to satisfy the curiosity of a particular readership’ about a person in the public eye.

What the European court initiated, the English courts happily adopted. From then on they decided that any information could be suppressed which someone had a reasonable expectation would be kept private (whatever that meant). Celebrities’ privacy actions became simply an exercise in deciding whether this was so, and then asking (in the words of the judge in the Meghan case) ‘whether in all the circumstances the privacy rights of the claimant must yield to the imperatives of the freedom of expression enjoyed by publishers’. The vital point (again in his words) was whether there was a ‘contribution which the publication of the relevant information would make to a debate of general interest’.

And so, we come to the result in Meghan’s claim against the Mail on Sunday. The judge there excoriated the old robust approach to newspaper exposés as an obviously outdated ‘crude common law principle’. Today what mattered was the new human-rights-based sophistication. Here, since Meghan understandably hoped that her letter to her father would never be revealed, and there was no sufficiently high-minded addition to public debate to justify publicising it, she had to win.

We should not criticise the judge for deciding as he did; he was loyally applying the law as it is now. Nor is the result reached necessarily misguided. It is certainly arguable, even if most Spectator readers are likely to disagree, that people – including celebrities – ought to have an extensive right to privacy and the press a correspondingly narrow right to inform its readers about their inner lives.

But the important point here lies in the word ‘arguable’. It is this which demonstrates the problem arising from the fact that almost all press privacy questions have now been deftly transmuted into human rights cases. The essence of human rights claims is precisely that they are not arguable in this sense. To call a right a human right is to say it is so important that no state can deny it and still be called civilised, and that therefore it needs to be taken out of the democratic political process and entrusted to supranational institutions like the European court.

There is no reason, however, to think that privacy claims such as Meghan’s fall into this category. Indeed there is every reason to think they are not: it is perfectly possible for a civilised state to support either a wide or a narrow definition of privacy. The choice between them is a vital question of social policy. The proper place for the matter to be decided is in the democratic political sphere. If human rights law requires that privacy be preferred over press freedom whatever the voters think, then this should trouble anyone with a concern for a free press.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Show comments