street of shame

The Private Life of Brian

Ipso ruling, Issue 1465
Prince Brian, whose lawyers have sent a warning shot across the Mail’s bows before it serialises Tom Bower’s new book about the heir to the throne
LAST MONTH, press regulator Ipso upheld a complaint against the Sunday Times Magazine from Mohammed Ahmed, a former asylum seeker from Sudan who took umbrage at an article by Lynn Barber describing how she had given him a room in her house but had then fallen out with him. Ipso decided Ahmed’s right to privacy outweighed Barber’s right to freedom of expression.

Her feature had included details of their arguments about Ahmed’s drug use and his health; she also accused him of downloading porn on to her computer. According to Ipso: “The extent of this detail, published without his consent, and where no steps were taken to obscure his identity, represented an intrusion into his private life.” (Actually Barber and the ST did slightly obscure his identity, calling him “Mohammed A.” Bizarrely, given its concern for his privacy, it was Ipso that revealed his full name.)

The regulator issued a similar rebuke to the Daily Mail, which had run a story summarising Lynn Barber’s account. No matter that the Mail merely repeated details that were already in the public domain: “The fact that this material had been published by another newspaper was not sufficient to justify the extent of information reported about the complainant, and the resulting intrusion into his private life.”

‘No memoirs or eyewitness accounts’
The Mail took its punishment without complaint, but the Sunday Times argued that Ipso’s verdict could have implications far beyond the tale of the hack and the asylum-seeker. “In effect, its ruling forbids writers from telling a story without the approval of their subjects,” an editorial claimed. “If this stance were to be repeated, there would be no memoirs or eyewitness accounts in the press.” It seems that Messrs Sue Grabbit & Runne were paying close attention. Within a month of its publication, the Ahmed judgment is being used against the press by lawyers for, er, HRH the Prince of Wales.

Later this month the Mail intends to run extracts from Tom Bower’s new book about the prince. As the last Eye revealed, solicitors for the former royal valet Michael Fawcett have already asked the paper not to mention his nickname (“The Fence”) in its serialisation of the Life of Brian. Now Messrs Harbottle & Lewis have sent the Mail a legal warning on behalf of Brian himself.

“Much has been made by Mr Bower of the number of so-called ‘sources’ that he has spoken to,” they write. “If these are anonymous and/or single sources then you will of course be aware of the need for both caution and the need to establish the veracity or otherwise of any claims made by such individuals in advance of publication by you of such claims. You will also be aware of the recent decision in the Ipso adjudication Ahmed v the Daily Mail. The issues raised there are of direct relevance when considering such matters. Your responsibility under the Editors’ Code of Conduct is clear.”

Blackout curtain of ‘privacy’
One factor in Ipso’s decision in Ahmed v the Daily Mail is that “the complainant was not a public figure”. Do Harbottle & Lewis think this applies to the heir to the throne? Ipso added: “The fact that no steps were taken to obscure the complainant’s identity represented an intrusion into his private life.” Do Harbottle & Lewis expect the Mail to call him “Prince C”, with all photos suitably pixellated?

Probably not. But Ipso’s reasoning elsewhere in its judgment seems to allow even the most public of figures to hide themselves behind a blackout curtain of “privacy”. Most useful for Sue Grabbit & Runne is the ruling by Ipso that the complainant’s right to privacy outweighs the journalist’s right to freedom of expression even when “the newspaper was reporting on material of significant public interest” – and even if the material had already appeared elsewhere. What mattered was that Ahmed “had been upset at the idea of being the focus of coverage in a national newspaper”, and “had not disclosed any of this information publicly, or consented to its publication”. No doubt the heir to the throne could say the same.

As indeed his lawyers already do. “For the avoidance of doubt,” they write, “Mr Bower has never spoken to our client nor those who are really close to him and he is therefore in no position to know the truth or otherwise of any matters concerning our client or his staff.”

How they can be so sure about the author’s sources is not explained. Equally puzzling is the assertion that no one can know the truth of anything concerning Brian without speaking to him or his most intimate friends. When hacks point out that the Duchy Organic rye and sunflower bloomer is indigestibly dry, can they too now expect a legal letter insisting that they are “in no position to know” – and accusing them of invading HRH’s privacy?

More top stories in the latest issue:

As Bahrain jails a human rights activist, the Telegraph holds out its begging bowl and publishes gushing ‘sponsored reports’ on the ‘pearl of Arabia’.

Having bemoaned attacks on press freedom, Boris Johnson defends his costly Garden Bridge fiasco by… attacking journalists who scrutinised his decisions!

With all the ‘thigh-slits’ and ‘revealing necklines’, Oscars night threw MailOnline into a tizzy over whom to drool over and whose outfit to trash.

Citing the Data Protection Act, Max Mosley’s lawyers launch a bizarre lawsuit designed to force newspapers to erase old articles that he doesn’t like.

Walter Merricks, chair of Impress, rallies members as unflattering stories emerge about the past of Max Mosley, the miniature press watchdog’s bankroller.

Why the Telegraph’s much-loved, £650,000-a-year cartoonist Matt is simply too valuable an asset for the ailing newspaper to lose.

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3rd April 2018
In This Issue private eye
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- Worboys & the PM: Theresa May’s sudden black cab U-turn
- Streetfighting man: Max Mosley’s latest bizarre lawsuit
- Firkin hell: Pubco scam that scrapes the bottom of the barrel

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Private Eye Issue 1464