Media victorious in Strasbourg

Grand Chamber rejects Princess Caroline privacy claim; upholds newspaper anonymity complaint

The Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights has ruled in favour of the media in two significant judgments delivered today.

In Von Hannover v Germany (No 2) (Applications nos. 40660/08 and 60641/08), the Court rejected a complaint by Princess Caroline of Monaco and her husband, Prince Ernst August von Hannover, that a refusal to restrain publication of photographs of the two of them walking during a skiing holiday, which had been used to illustrate stories about Princess Caroline’s ill father, violated their Article 8 right to respect for their private life. In dismissing the application, the Court held that the German courts had carefully balanced the right of the publishing companies to freedom of expression against the right of the applicants to respect for their private life. It found that the domestic courts had attached fundamental importance to the question of whether the photographs, considered in the light of the accompanying articles, had contributed to a debate of general interest; had examined the circumstances in which the photographs had been taken; and had explicitly taken account of the relevant case-law of the Strasbourg Court.

In Axel Springer AG v Germany (Application no. 39954/08), a newspaper publisher complained that an injunction imposed on it against reporting on the arrest and conviction of an actor well known for playing a Police Superintendent for possession of cocaine violated its Article 10 right to freedom of expression. The Court held, by a majority of 12-5, that there had been a violation. While the domestic courts had given relevant reasons for their decision, there was “no reasonable relationship of proportionality between, on the one hand, the restrictions imposed by the national courts on the applicant company’s right to freedom of expression and, on the other hand, the legitimate aim pursued.”

Both decisions will be welcomed by the media as confirming their right to report on the activities of celebrities when relevant to “a debate of general interest”, a concept which appears to have been given a more generous interpretation than has sometimes been the case in the past.

5RB’s Richard Munden (instructed by Hogan Lovells) acted for the Media Legal Defence Initiative, the International Press Institute and the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers, which were given leave by the President to intervene in the two cases.