In dismissing a breach of privacy action in respect of press reports of a prominent politician’s alleged paternity of a three-year-old girl (AAA) following an adulterous affair, the Court of Appeal has given important guidance on the correct balance to be struck between individual rights of privacy and freedom of expression.
The action was launched on AAA’s behalf after reports appeared in a national newspaper, alleging that the married politician was her father and that she had been conceived adulterously. At first instance, the High Court awarded the girl £15,000 damages in respect of the newspaper’s repeated publication of photographs of her being pushed in her buggy by her mother. However, the court refused to award compensation in respect of the articles published or to restrain by injunction further publication of the allegations on which they were based.
Dismissing the girl’s challenge to that decision, the court ruled that the judge had properly balanced the interests of the child against the public interest in the publication of allegations that the politician was a ‘philandering adulterer’ whose ‘extreme recklessness’ in entering into extra-marital affairs was capable of being viewed as impacting upon his fitness for public office.
There was evidence that the politician had conceived a previous child adulterously, although that pregnancy had been terminated. The newspaper had also referred to the fact that he had appointed AAA’s mother to a public position as a fund-raiser when she was in the early stages of pregnancy. The mother had sought to protect AAA from media intrusion and argued that she alone had the right to decide when the time was right to tell her about her paternity.
However, the court upheld the judge’s conclusion that the mother’s expectation of privacy had been weakened by a previous interview that she had given to a magazine and by a conversation that she had had with the managing director of a major magazine group at a country house party.
The court also noted that much that had been published in the media in relation to AAA’s paternity remained widely available on the internet and agreed with the newspaper’s lawyers that ‘once it was out there, there could be no question of returning it to obscurity’. The judge had correctly exercised her discretion in performing a ‘difficult and sensitive balancing exercise’ and her decision was ‘unassailable’, the court concluded.