The UK High Court has decided to extend a ban on the publication of photos that were stolen from Pippa Middleton’s iCloud account by an unknown hacker. The right to respect for private and family life was central to the court’s reasoning.
Tabloid newspaper, The Sun, was approached by an anonymous individual seeking £50,000 for images retrieved from Pippa Middleton’s iCloud, which included photos of Prince George and Princess Charlotte.
Although the individual’s identity remains unknown, the court’s decision ensures that no media outlet will be persuaded into purchasing and subsequently publishing the images. A 35-year old man was arrested and released on bail under suspicion of having committed an offence under the Computer Misuse Act 1990. It is currently unclear whether the person who conducted the hack is the same individual who attempted to sell the images to The Sun.
How human rights help to preventing misuse of private information
Freedom of expression is an important right and it includes freedom of the press. Free expression is protected under Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which takes effect in UK law through the Human Rights Act. A high threshold must be met before a court will make an order restricting that right.
One justification for limiting the right to freedom of expression derives from the right to respect for family and private life, protected under Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights. In cases where the exercise of free expression by one person would have the effect of violating another’s private life, it may be justifiable to limit free expression. This was the situation faced by Ms. Middleton and her family, with the anonymous individual seeking to exercise their right to freedom of expression by having the stolen photos published.
When the right to respect for private and family life and the right to freedom of expression come into conflict in this way, the courts weigh up the competing rights and interests, to see whether there is adequate cause for interfering with freedom of expression. In Ms. Middleton’s case, this meant weighing the unknown person’s right to make the photos public against her right to respect for her family and private life.
The court’s decision – where does the balance lie?
The High Court showed little sympathy for the argument that the right to freedom of expression should win out on this occasion:
In the circumstances of this case, I conclude that any argument to the effect that Article 10 is infringed by my order would be very weak. By contrast, the… arguments that… rights to private life under Article 8 are infringed if I do not make this order are very strong.
The judge explained that the only possible justification for protecting the right to publish the images would be some kind of journalistic value or public interest in doing so. An example might be if the stolen images somehow revealed that a crime had been committed. Importantly, the judge emphasised that just because the public might be interested in seeing the stolen photos did not mean that there was a genuine public interest in them being published.
The judge also cited guidelines from the Editors’ Code of Practice in support of her decision to ban publication of the images. The Code of Practice states:
Everyone is entitled to respect for his or her private and family life, home, health and correspondence, including digital communications.
At a time where digital media are intruding further and further into our private lives, the protection offered by Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights is growing in importance.
For more information:
- Read our explainer on why the right to family and private life matters.
- Take a look at our right to family and private life infographic poster.
- Learn about press freedom with our free speech infographic poster.