In My Opinion: Francis Shennan: The Steven Purcell case

JUST before 8.30 this morning, my colleagues – Andy Collier and Professor Brian McNair – were on BBC radio’s Good Morning Scotland, discussing the handling of Steven Purcell’s resignation.

Both The Scotsman and BBC had carried stories that Glasgow City Council officials had been preparing to put out a statement on why their former leader was standing down.

By 9am, the BBC was reporting Purcell’s spokesman, Jack Irvine, dismissing it as without foundation, with the issue now with his legal team.

This morning’s stories included reports of a possible interdict against the council and Purcell’s PRs contacting the Press Complaints Commission amid feared harassment of “a sick man”.

Legal team? Possible interdicts? Referrals to the PCC?

What is a poor hack to do?

The answer is to investigate and write the story. It is undoubtedly in the public interest: an elected public figure, the leader of Scotland’s biggest local authority, resigns unexpectedly.

Any questions of privacy that arise will concern the most intrusive kinds of coverage. There is always a boundary between public and private, even for public figures. The question is where the boundary lies, but there are a number of cases which offer a guide.

Public figures do have a legal right to privacy, as Princess Caroline of Hannover, formerly Monaco, established in the European Court of Human Rights in 2004. The decisive factor was whether published photographs and articles contributed to a debate of general interest.

In her case, she was exercising no official function and the photographs and articles related exclusively to her private life.

The PCC’s Code of Practice follows the European Convention on Human Rights, now part of UK law, in saying “everyone is entitled to respect for his or her private and family life, home… and correspondence,” adding: “Editors will be expected to justify intrusions into any individual’s private life without consent.”

There are exceptions, though – says the PCC – where it is in the public interest to intrude into someone’s private life. This includes three grounds: “i) Detecting or exposing crime or serious impropriety. ii) Protecting public health and safety. iii) Preventing the public from being misled by an action or statement of an individual or organisation.”

The courts – as in the recent Max Mosley case – may look at this Code to see if newspapers have met their own industry’s standards. But they are not bound by it in making their own judgement.

The Mosley case ilustrates the point. He won his privacy case against the News of the World because the court took the view that, what he got up in his private life, lurid or not, was not enough to warrant it being published.

According to Mr Justice Eady, only if there had been a ‘Nazi element’ would that have been “information which people arguably should have the opportunity to know and evaluate”.

Then, five weeks ago, John Terry failed to renew a super-injunction and Mr Justice Tugendhat declared: “Freedom to live as one chooses is one of the most valuable freedoms. But so is the freedom to criticise, within the limits of the law, the conduct of other members of society as being socially harmful, or wrong.”

Francis Shennan is an award-winning freelance journalist and Visiting Lecturer in Media Law at Strathclyde University. His one-day law courses for journalists and PRs have been used by national newspaper groups and public and private-sector PRs in Scotland and England.