On 22 September 2010 the Tate Modern staged an “art-law” symposium, in conjunction with its “Exposed” photography exhibition. The title of event was “Voyeurism, privacy, censorship & surveillance“.    It brought together lawyers and artists in the exhibition gallery with talks by Lord Hoffmann, artist Alison Jackson, Max Mosley and Henry Porter.   The discussion, chaired by Charles Haddon-Cave, ranged from privacy, via the nature of celebrity to the surveillance state.  The most interesting element, from the Inforrm point of view, was the discussion of privacy and the media by Lord Hoffmann and Mr Mosley.

Lord Hoffmann asked two questions: “should the law protect privacy? and “can the law protect privacy?”   His answer to the first question was a clear “yes”.  He suggested four reasons why it should now be protected.  First, society is becoming more civilised.  Second, for reasons of principle we want to discourage people from getting involved in the private lives of others.  Third, it is necessary because the technology is now available to capture every detail of private life.  Finally, there is the influence on English law of the European Convention on Human Rights and continental legal systems which provide privacy protection.    Lord Hoffmann’s view was that the protection of privacy was a “good thing”, making us a civilised society.

On the second question he thought that the answer was more doubtful.  First, he pointed out that bringing privacy proceedings was prohibitively expensive and was the preserve of the immensely rich or those on Conditional Fee Agreements.  Secondly, he suggested that often legal action will do no good whatsoever and the information gets out of the bag anywa.  The damage is irremediable.  He suggested that some other remedy was needed for privacy law to be effective.

This led neatly onto Mr Mosley’s contribution.  He gave a powerful presentation of his ideas on the need for an obligation on the media to pre-notify those whose private lives were going to be invaded.  Post-publication legal action hardly provided an effective remedy.  He told the audience that his own action had cost him £510,000 in legal costs, of which he had recovered £420,000 from the “News of the World” and £60,000 damages.  In otherwise, he had paid £30,000 for the benefit of a hearing which involved prolonged exposure of his private life.  It was, he said, as if a person sued for an accident which had broken his leg had had the other leg broken by the court and was presented with a bill.  He doubted the ability of the “toothless” PCC to do anything about this.   What was needed, he argued, was an obligation on the media to give prior notification.  The issue will be considered by the Court of Human Rights at the hearing of his application on 11 January 2011.

The other speakers went beyond the law into the wider realms of art and society.  Alison Jackson talked about celebrities and the way we look at them, showing examples of her “celebrity look alike” photographs and expressing surprise that people do not own their own images.  Finally, Henry Porter gave a powerful and impassioned talk about liberty and surveillance.  Britain had, he pointed out, the highest levels of surveillance anywhere outside North Korea but, despite some positive noises from the coalition, very little was being done to row it back.

The evening ended with a discussion, the highlight of which was an impassioned plea from Lord Prescott for politicians to stop being cowardly about the press and to do something to bring it under control.

The evening was a remarkable joint production by Tate Modern and Gray’s Inn and was organised by the indefatigable Siobhan Grey (who had previously set up the Gray’s Inn’s February event “Gagging the Media”  – the subject of an earlier post).