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LONDON – Britain’s highest court backed celebrity magazine OK! over rival Hello! on Wednesday, ending a long-running court battle over photographs of the 2000 wedding of Hollywood couple Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones.
OK! paid $2 million for exclusive rights to cover the celebrity wedding, and won a 2003 court case against Hello! which published unauthorized “spoiler” pictures taken by a paparazzo.
Hello! won an appeal in 2005, so OK! took the case to the House of Lords for a final ruling.
Publishing experts and lawyers said Wednesday’s judgment, under which OK! gets back its one million pounds in damages, could affect how the media covers celebrities who sign exclusive deals and may bolster public figures’ control over their image.
“It has a relevance in respect of future situations where editors say: ‘Let’s try and destroy this story’,” said Roderick Dadak, head of defamation, media, brands and technology at law firm Lewis Silkin. “There is a line beyond which you can’t go.”
Phil Hall, former editor of British tabloid News of the World, called it a “really sad day”.
“I think the public lose out, because I think it’s a terrible blow to the freedom of the press,” he told Sky News.
“If you look at the prime ruling which is about a breach of confidentiality, it now means that you’ve handed control of the media to celebrities.”
Despite its court victory, OK! is likely to have to shoulder a significant share of total legal costs of around $16 million after the law lords decided that Hello! had not intended to injure OK!’s business.
During the original 2003 trial, Zeta-Jones told the court she felt violated by the unauthorized pictures, calling them “unflattering” and “sleazy”.
She said she was particularly distressed by shots showing her being fed cake.
“I did not want my husband shoving a spoon down my throat to be photographed … It is offensive.”
The couple did not take part in the House of Lords case.
The battle between OK! and Hello! is one of several cases in recent years where courts have effectively been creating a privacy law in Britain.
Since human rights legislation was incorporated into British law in 2000, the right to privacy has been weighed up against the right to freedom of expression, and lawyers generally agree that most rulings have favored the former.
“I think there has undoubtedly been a shift from Article 10, which is freedom to publish, to article 8 (right to privacy),” Dadak said.
In December, Canadian singer Loreena McKennitt saw the High Court uphold an earlier decision to prevent the disclosure of details of her private life from appearing in a book by former friend Niema Ash.
In 2004, the law lords decided supermodel Naomi Campbell’s rights were breached when a newspaper ran a story saying, correctly, that she had visited Narcotics Anonymous.
And in the same year the European Court of Human Rights condemned Germany for failing to stop press photos of Princess Caroline of Monaco which it said violated her right to respect for private life.
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