The Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights yesterday handed down its much anticipated decisions in the important privacy cases Axel Springer and von Hannover.
The decisions are important wins for the media. They confirm that reports of the private lives of public figures will be acceptable where they contribute to a matter of general interest and there is no evidence of other wrongdoing.
The two cases, both of which originated in Germany, are concerned with the relationship between freedom of expression (Article 10) and privacy (Article 8). In both cases the Court found in favour of freedom of expression.
The von Hannover decision is the culmination of years of litigation by Princess Caroline of Monaco to prevent publication of photographs of her private life. The Axel Springer case marks the end of the German publisher’s fight against a ban on the publication of photos and articles about the arrest of a well-known German TV personality for allegedly using cocaine. The Grand Chamber was satisfied that the two publications contributed to a debate of general interest.
In the former case, the German Courts refused Princess Caroline’s request for an injunction banning the further publication of a picture of the Princess with her husband on a skiing holiday in St Moritz in 2002. The picture had appeared alongside an article which included information on Prince Rainier’s deteriorating health. The Strasbourg court agreed with the national courts’ decisions that the accompanying report contributed to a debate of general interest and that the photographs had not been taken in unfavourable circumstances and were not offensive.
In Axel Springer the court found that the report of the public arrest of the individual – in a tent at a beer festival – was a matter of public interest and determined that the sanctions imposed on the publisher by the national court, although lenient, were capable of having a chilling effect.
In both cases the fact the individuals involved were not private individuals but could properly be regarded as “public figures” was important. In Axel Springer the court found that the TV personality had himself revealed details about his private life in a number of interviews and in the court’s view had actively sought the limelight and was well known to the public. As a consequence, his “legitimate expectation that his private life would be effectively protected was henceforth reduced”. In von Hannover the court was satisfied that Princess Caroline and her husband were “undeniably very well known”, irrespective of the question of the extent to which the Princess assumes official functions on behalf of the Principality of Monaco.
Another important factor common to both cases was the means or method of obtaining the information that was the subject of the complaint. In Axel Springer the information had been disclosed by the German prosecutor and the photograph was taken in a public place. In von Hannover there was “nothing to indicate that the photos had been taken surreptitiously or by equivalent secret means”.
The cases are recommended reading. They contain an informative review of the law of privacy and a careful analysis of how the balancing exercise between Article 8 and Article 10 should be conducted.