Princess of privacy

Caroline of Monaco went shopping for censorship at the European Court, and found just what she was looking for.

Tessa Mayes

Topics Politics

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For some time Princess Caroline of Monaco has been popping in and out of courts around Europe to stop photographs being taken of her shopping.

In 1999 she visited the German constitutional court to apply for an injunction, but the court ruled that she had to tolerate photos of herself in public (1). This year the European Court in Strasbourg took her side. Nobody can photograph La Princess in the street without her consent – and that includes all streets in European countries (including Britain) that recognise the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). It also means that potentially any other individual with a case for privacy could use the law to this end.

We can laugh at celebrities’ diva-esque demands, but you can understand why somebody might want to control their own publicity if a group of cameramen kept following them around and taking unflattering photographs. In September 2004, actress Gwyneth Paltrow threatened photographers with court action after she accused them of threatening her child’s safety by driving dangerously (2). However accustomed to being in the public eye somebody might be, it’s not difficult to imagine that they sometimes want to be left alone.

Yet dangerous driving is already covered by law. What the Princess Caroline case allows for is unprecedented scope for the courts to clamp down on the publication of photographs featuring people in public streets. Publication of images produced by an invention that people have enjoyed using in outdoor spaces for over 150 years is now subject to severe state control. This is not diva behaviour – it’s anti-democratic behaviour.

The arguments in favour of the ruling suggested that it was for the benefit of democracy. Restricting freedom of expression in this way (under Article 10 of the ECHR) was seen as being apparently beneficial, because it will improve our culture and bolster a right to privacy. Princess Caroline proposed that photographs of her are not in the public interest, arguing that they are used merely to entertain, satisfy readers’ voyeurism and make huge profits (1).

But is this true? Plenty of people might argue making the public laugh is a service to public life. What the princess calls ‘voyeurism’, others might call scrutiny of a public figure’s character. And although huge profits from media publications end up in the laps of company executives, why should a wealthy heiress dictate how others earn their living?

Princess Caroline’s only strong argument is that the swamping of our culture with photographs and tales of public figures’ private lives is not in the public interest. I agree, but for different reasons. The problem is not so much actual photographs of people going about their daily lives in public places. There is a long artistic and media tradition of catching people in ordinary situations, and presenting these photos for the public gaze. But there is certainly something distasteful about the culture of the paparazzi, constantly peeping over celebrities’ shoulders. What the likes of Princess Caroline get up to in private may well be irrelevant to public debate – but that’s no reason for the courts to decide that view for the rest of us.

The European Court has agreed with the cultural arguments too. It says that the test for what counts as a privacy right under Article 8 is whether publication is likely to contribute to debate that is of general interest to society. The court concluded that photographs of the princess going about her private life in a public street offered no such contribution, even though she was famous (1).

But why should judges decide what is of general interest to society? In Britain, the case brought by supermodel Naomi Campbell after photographs of her in a public street emerging from a drug rehab centre were published resulted in judges at different levels of the judicial system making contradictory conclusions (3). Why? Because different individuals have varying views on what is of general interest to society. That’s not to say that society as a whole can’t come up with a consensus as to what constitutes its general interest. But matters to do with cultural standards need to be aired, debated and decided upon in the public domain, not imposed on us by a few judges.

Unlike words, photographic images imply an element of surveillance. The image reminds us that somebody had to be nearby, taking the shot. For those on the receiving end the experience of seeing their image writ large the next morning can be disturbing or gratifying, depending on their feelings.

Freedom of expression in a public space is being increasingly infringed upon in the name of protecting individuals’ privacy. Yet legal issues around freedom of expression should have nothing to do with the feelings of individuals. Neither should the ‘public interest’ content of those images be at issue – this is a cultural issue.

Photography in a public place should be allowed in a democracy. Its codification means that the photographic light of inspiration will be dimmed.

Tessa Mayes is a journalist and author of the spiked-report ‘Restraint or Revelation? Free speech and privacy in a confessional age’. She is a regular contributor to the British Journalism Review and Ethical Space, the periodical of the Institute of Communication Ethics.

(1) ‘Does this ruling mean end for paparazzi?’, by Robert Verkaik, Independent, 25 September 2004

(2) ‘Paltrow: Paparazzi are endangering my child’, by Ian Burrell, Independent, 9 September 2004

(3) The legal rulings of Naomi Campbell’s case are cited ‘Restraint or Revelation? Free speech and privacy in a confessional age’, by Tessa Mayes

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Topics Politics


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