On Tuesday 11 July 2017, the Times ran a story under the headline “Corbyn adviser Seamus Milne in clinch ‘with lawyer'”. The story was illustrated by long lens photographs of Mr Milne and barrister Jennifer Robinson in an East London hotel.
The story had been picked up by the Times from the Guido Fawkes blog which had published the photographs the previous day. For the rest of the week, the Sun, the Telegraph, the Express and the Daily Mail have published a number of variants on the same story.
The Daily Mail later telephoned Ms Robinson’s father and her former headteacher in Australia and published details of those conversations. Paparazzi photographers staked out the homes of those concerned
The theme of these stories is perhaps summed up by the Sun’s headline (two hours after the Times piece) “LABOUR OF LOVE: Married Corbyn crony Seumas Milne snapped with mystery blonde on East London hotel balcony“.
These stories plainly engage the private lives of the two individuals involved and their families. It can reasonably be expected that two individuals can meet in a hotel without being photographed and the photographs then being published in the press accompanied by innuendo and insinuation about their private lives.
All the newspapers mentioned subscribe to the IPSO Editors’ Code and claim to take its provisions seriously in their editorial decision making. Clause 2 deals with privacy and tells editors (in case they did not know already) that everyone is entitled to respect for their private life. Clause 2(ii) provides that “Editors will be expected to justify intrusions into any individual’s private life without consent”. Clause 2(iii) states that
“It is unacceptable to photograph individuals, without their consent, in public or private places where there is a reasonable expectation of privacy”.
Clause 2 of the Editors Code is subject to the “public interest” provisions. It must be demonstrated that the intrusions are in the public interest. This includes
- Detecting or exposing crime, or the threat of crime, or serious impropriety.
- Protecting public health or safety.
- Protecting the public from being misled by an action or statement of an individual or organisation.
- Disclosing a person or organisation’s failure or likely failure to comply with any obligation to which they are subject.
- Disclosing a miscarriage of justice.
- Raising or contributing to a matter of public debate, including serious cases of impropriety, unethical conduct or incompetence concerning the public.
- Disclosing concealment, or likely concealment, of any of the above
It is obvious that none of these factors are present. No crime or serious impropriety is being exposed. It is not suggested in any of the articles that Mr Milne or Ms Robinson have misled the public by any actions or statements. There is no public interest in publishing pictures of two individuals on a hotel balcony – whether in a “clinch” or not – and none in pursuing them and their families.
The structure of the tort of misuse of private information is similar to that of the Code. If there is an interference with private life then this must be justified on the basis of a contribution to a “debate of general interest”. Once again, none is suggested and it is difficult to see what defence the newspapers would have to a legal claim.
In his report in November 2012, Lord Justice Leveson said that, on too many occasions, the press had acted as if its own code simply did not exist. Nearly 5 years later the position has not changed. The press continues to ignore the privacy rights. Its non-regulator IPSO has never taken any regulatory action to ensure that the Editors’ Code is complied with and seems unlikely to take any such steps in the future. In the absence of an effective press regulator – backed by the incentives of section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013 – privacy abuses will continue.
Of course, the motivation for the story is clear: it is a political attack on Jeremy Corbyn, with Mr Milne, Ms Robinson and their families simply being collateral damage. This attack was led by the Murdoch Times. Its pretentions to seriousness and responsibility are laid bare by a piece of political tabloid journalism in the service of the political priorities of its proprietors. The Editors’ Code and the privacy rights of those involved are not allowed to get in the way. It is not surprising that the UK newspapers are the least trusted in Europe.
Hugh Tomlinson QC is an editor of Inforrm and the Chair of Hacked Off