Mr. X: British courts shield stars in sex cases

AP News
Posted: Apr 21, 2011 4:07 PM
Mr. X: British courts shield stars in sex cases

A topless model has juicy details of a six-month affair with a married soccer star. A prostitute wants to dish the dirt about a sex romp with a British actor.

But British courts have gagged the women and journalists from reporting the lurid details or the men's identities.

The cases are the latest in a series of British court orders issued to protect the privacy of public figures _ usually men involved in extramarital affairs.

Press freedom and legal advocates say the public figures _ and the mostly male judges issuing the gag orders _ are abusing and misinterpreting European human rights law. They ask what would happen if everyone were allowed to stop everyone else from talking about them.

"Middle-class male judges will usually rule in favor of chaps who have the bad luck of a mistress who kisses and then tells," said Geoffrey Robertson, a human rights lawyer. "The problem is that the law is incoherent and being interpreted by judges behind closed doors.

"Tiger Woods' reputation may have been unsullied had he lived in England."

In the United States, freedom of speech is protected under the First Amendment and often trumps privacy arguments. In Europe, however, the law is interpreted by judges who can balance privacy concerns over the concept of open justice and freedom of speech.

More than 30 public figures have won gagging orders since 2008 in Britain.

In the latest case, Justice David Eady granted an order Wednesday to prevent a topless model and reality show contestant from revealing the details of her affair with a Premier League soccer star to the press or the public. Eady is known for upholding several libel rulings for celebrities and others.

Richard Spearman, an attorney representing The Sun tabloid, argued that the principle of open justice should prevail. Lawyer Hugh Tomlinson, meanwhile, said his soccer star client should be protected against having the media report allegations of the affair.

The press and the public were ordered to leave the court minutes into the two-and-a-half hour hearing.

Max Clifford, a public relations expert who represents the topless model, said she never wanted to sell her story. She simply told the soccer star that reporters had started asking about their relationship and the player's agent then went to the courts to prevent the media from publishing his name, Clifford said.

Pictures of the model _ and her name _ were widely publicized in the British press.

"The orders are totally sexist," says Clifford. "It's all about men stopping women from talking. He gets to keep his privacy while she loses hers."

Only three of the 30 recent privacy injunctions were obtained by women and most of the orders came from male judges. Experts also say many judges have used the privacy article to curtail the power of the British tabloids.

In a separate case, Eady also issued a final "contra mundum" order Wednesday _ effectively a worldwide ban_ against details of a man's private life being published. Legal experts say they've rarely heard of such an order being issued in a privacy case and say it is doubtful such an order would be upheld in foreign courts.

To illustrate how many basic details newspapers couldn't publish about both these cases, The Times ran nearly a full-page story Thursday riddled with thick black lines as a visual device. Readers struggled to make out basic sentences because of the redactions. Other papers issued lengthy commentaries against the rulings.

Eady's court clerk Richard Trout told The Associated Press that the judge doesn't take questions from the press, and hung up when the AP asked to speak directly to the judge.

In another recent case, Justice Nicholas Blake issued a gagging order that blocked a prostitute from revealing details about her alleged romp with a well-known married British actor who's been in at least one blockbuster film. (Yes, we know who it is but can't tell you.)

The actor's name has appeared on several websites since the injunction was granted. The same prostitute also allegedly had sex with England soccer star Wayne Rooney.

The Human Rights Act of 1998 protects the right to family, privacy and freedom of expression but up until recently, there were few gag orders issued in Britain out of privacy concerns.

Although there has never been a specific English common law right to privacy, the British government has sometimes asked editors to show restraint in reporting on private or sensitive royal matters. Editors agreed to back off from publishing details about the private life of Wallis Simpson, the American divorcee who scandalized Britain and prompted Edward VIII to abdicate the throne in 1936.

France, too, has embraced privacy protections for politicians and other public figures. Editors there long shied away from reporting that former President Francois Mitterand had an illegitimate daughter, even though most knew that to be true.

Prime Minister David Cameron sounded a warning Thursday about the way judges are creating a new law of privacy "rather than Parliament."

"What's happening here is that the judges are using the European Convention on Human Rights to deliver a sort of privacy law without Parliament saying so," he said.

Ambi Sitham, a media and entertainment lawyer, said such injunctions were designed to be used when public security was an issue.

"Parliament should sit down and consider existing privacy laws and define what is in the public interest," Sitham said. "If a celebrity is a footballer, does that make them a role model?"

Roy Greenslade, a former editor of the Daily Mirror tabloid, said if the trend toward gag orders continues, it will prompt the evolution of a site, perhaps like WikiLeaks, that leaks such celebrity information.

"It's a finger in the dike," he said. "Eventually we'll see a kind of website set up which will, outside the U.K. court jurisdiction, make a kind of habit of revealing what the British media can't."