This morning I was granted an insight into the image of England as it may be seen from abroad, complete with our funny English superinjunctions and our ruritanian judges bumptiously demanding that they have the right to rule the media worldwide. It is quite remarkable.
We’ve all seen the Strauss-Kahn case on the satellite news.
The story of the Presidential-candidate-in-waiting suddenly deciding to leave the country after a sexual escapade, which may or may not turn out to be a criminal sexual assault, and being caught on the plane to sanctuary from charge as it was sitting on the runway.
All very cloak and dagger, and now a news story for the next week or so, the probable end of a career for Mr Strauss-Kahn, and a possible very long jail sentence if he is charged and found guilty.
And we’ve all seen the film of a distinguished looking, grey-haired man being led from the aircraft back towards a process of inquiry and justice. Except maybe in France, because in France they have strong privacy law.
There was a small note on the BBC News 24 pictures of Strauss-Kahn being led back from the aircraft:
‘in France we would not be able to show you this due to French privacy laws’.
Is this right? The footage was clearly News, clearly a public figure, clearly a matter of public interest, and clearly not in any way frivolous. It all seems a little bit like a throwback to a fairytale – you can’t know, little boy, because this they say you can’t.
And according to French legal commentator Thomas Roussineau, a lawyer specialising in privacy law:
However, in the case of Mr Strauss-Kahn, he has never been open to the media about his private life, so benefits from stricter protection, he said.
Even the photo circulating of Mr Strauss-Kahn handcuffed in theory breached the law on the presumption of innocence and image rights, he said.
That’s why this debate needs to be about worldwide jurisdiction and news, protection of sources, and helping people in Third World and non-democratic countries not to be killed by powerful individuals who don’t like them revealing inconvenient facts.
That’s how our Libel regime looks to more advanced countries.
In Britain we still have the situation where a judge in London can decide that he has jurisdiction over, for example, a case brought by a Ukrainian against another Ukrainian, about an article published in Ukrainian, on a Ukrainian website, of interest to Ukrainians, with hardly any (in this case about 100) subscribers in the UK.
This was the Rinat Akhmetov (a Ukrainian Oligarch) vs Obozrevatel case, as reported in the “Free Speech is Not For Sale” report, and also mentioned in the Law Gazette here. Akhmetov obtained a default judgement in £60,000 in a UK Court.
DEFAULT JUDGMENT (2007-08) Claimant: Rinat Akhmetov, businessman, Ukraine Respondent: Obozrevatel, two of its editors, and one of its journalists, Ukraine
Obozrevatel is a Ukraine-based internet news site that publishes in Ukrainian, with only a few dozen readers in Britain. This case was brought by Akhmetov in relation to a series of four articles about Akhmetov’s youth, published in January and February of 2007. Default judgment in Akhmetov’s favour was obtained, along with damages of £50,000 and costs, in June 2008. There is no doubt that these cases will have had a chilling effect on Ukrainian journalists.
So we shouldn’t swallow the “this is mainly about the right to privacy” line, no matter where it comes from. This is about more than which Home Counties Hero is shagging or not shagging which model girl, socialite or celebrity this week, even though that is the steamy lens through which this debate is seen.
Instead, ignore Max Mosley’s focus on privacy of particular figures and make the impact on news and politics, and the issues of libel tourism and worldwide jurisdiction, the focus of the debate.
In the meantime, you can follow Carl Gardner’s blog for legally literate reporting on the Strauss-Kahn case.