Model Naomi Campbell may not be walking so tall anymore. Last week she was ordered to pay legal costs to the Mirror, which she sued for invasion of privacy after the tabloid ran details of treatment she'd sought for drug and alcohol abuse. Campbell had been awarded minimal damages by a lower court, which agreed that her privacy had been violated not by the revelation of her addictions, but by the publication of photos of her leaving Narcotics Anonymous meetings. But the Court of Appeal ruled that their publication was justified in the public interest, since Campbell had publicly boasted of her sobriety. "She got herself stuck because she lied about her drug problem," says media lawyer James Price. "Had she simply been in a clinic receiving treatment she would have had a right to privacy."
In the endless war between celebrities and the media, it's hard to feel sympathy for spotlight seekers who invoke the right to privacy only when it suits them. But it is also difficult to take seriously the press freedom arguments of voracious tabloids. Still, the momentum these days is with the hacks. The Campbell case is one of a trio of recent U.K. rulings that indicate a growing "reluctance on the part of the courts to hold that the press has interfered with privacy rights," says Eric Barendt, a professor of media law at University College London. Earlier this year the Sunday People tabloid was allowed to publish a story about footballer Garry Flitcroft, who tried to argue that two women with whom he'd had extramarital flings had violated his privacy by selling their tales. T.V. personality Jamie Theakston attempted a similar argument when stories were published about his dalliance with prostitutes. Both failed. "We're gradually feeling our way toward a law in which the media have reasonably free rein to expose the naughtiness of people in the public eye without invading the privacy to which everybody is entitled," says Price.
That's a marked shift from the days after Princess Diana's death, when the backlash against the media especially the paparazzi accused of causing the accident that killed her was swift and ferocious. Celebrities lined up to denounce the intrusiveness of the press they courted when they had a film or tell-all memoir to flog. The press flayed itself, with countless editorials and articles calling for greater restraint in covering the private lives of those in the public eye. Just four months after Diana's death, Britain's Press Complaints Commission (PCC), an industry-oversight body established in 1991, expanded its definition of a private place to include public venues "where there is a reasonable expectation of privacy." The revision was partly in anticipation of the 2000 incorporation into British law of the European Human Rights Convention which, unlike U.K. legislation, provides an explicit guarantee of a right to privacy.
But now the government has joined the courts in entrusting the press with greater latitude. Earlier this year the Lord Chancellor abandoned plans to introduce regulation prohibiting the press from paying witnesses in criminal trials for their stories. The proposed law, which the PCC opposed, would have affected the recent coverage of Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson, who was accused of inappropriate physical contact by a South African woman. She withdrew her allegation after reportedly collecting $115,000 from the Mail on Sunday for her story.
The trend defies what many predicted would result from the U.K.'s incorporation of European human- rights law. One of the first cases to arise under the new framework involved Hello! magazine, which published unauthorized wedding photos of Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones. An initial 2000 Court of Appeals ruling in the case suggested a heightened deference to privacy because of the new legislation. The case goes to trial in January the couple is suing for breach of privacy and could set an important precedent for how U.K. courts interpret European rights law.
Given the commercial value of celebrity stories, that interpretation will draw plenty of attention. Mirror editor Piers Morgan, who admits he's crossed the line on privacy in the past, confesses to "some trepidation" about how the courts will act. Whatever the future holds, he's certain that in the Campbell case he helped to strike a blow for press freedom and protected himself against the prospect of costly future litigation. "If she'd won, we'd have seen a lot more cases trying to embrace privacy law in any form," he says. "Instead, you'll see common sense being applied. If you invade your own privacy, then expect your privacy to be invaded."