Anyone with a smidgeon of interest in legal matters following the wall-to-wall media and political coverage of the so-called Panama Papers over the last 10 days might be forgiven for wondering whether she or he had missed a recent Supreme Court decision abolishing the laws of confidence and privacy.
The vast majority of the rumoured 11 million documents apparently obtained from Mossack Fonseca (by fair means or foul – despite some of the finest investigative journalists working on the story for up to a year, the media has been notably coy about disclosing how it happened to come by this information) will be confidential and/or private.
Under Article 8 of the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights: "Everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence". "Everyone" means everyone. The decisions of the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg have established that such protection extends to personal financial information.
Further, even if the information is not private, it may well in any event be protected by the law of confidence. There may also be data protection law implications.
In addition, the Editors' Code of Practice, administered by IPSO, prohibits the publication of material obtained, amongst other things, "by the unauthorised removal of documents or photographs; or by accessing digitally-held information without consent" (paragraph 10 (i)).
The media is not therefore entitled to ride roughshod over the privacy and confidentiality rights of those who have chosen, often for perfectly sensible and entirely lawful reasons, to have some of their assets held in offshore structures.
Of course, if the documents in question disclose serious wrongdoing, let alone criminal offences such as money laundering or sanctions busting, then the media may well have a public interest defence.
But where such documents are confidential and/or private and would disclose only lawful steps to mitigate tax liability (no different in object or effect from investing in an ISA or a personal pension plan), then the media would likely struggle to provide any legal justification for invading a person's privacy and that of his or her family, no matter how newsworthy or prominent that person may be.
Prudent journalists will generally approach the subjects of such stories, or their PR team, before publication. That is likely to be the only opportunity gently to remind the gentlemen of the press of their legal obligations.