Opinion

Will the decision on the Beckhams’ nanny give carte blanche to careers in backstabbing?

There has been much comment on the Beckhams’ failed attempt to obtain an injunction to enforce the confidentiality agreement signed by their nanny. Much of it has argued that those who exploit a happy family image in public are not entitled to the protection of the law for their private lives.

This is an argument that has been relied upon in many cases previously to prevent celebrities from restraining publication of allegations about their private lives.

However, in this case, it appears that the court has refused to enforce a contractual obligation of confidentiality on the part of the Beckhams’ nanny. This is a more unusual situation. For example, the Blairs recently obtained an injunction to prevent their former nanny from publishing a book about their private lives because of the confidentiality obligation that she had undertaken to them.

The press has hailed this decision as a victory for press freedom, but there are some worrying aspects of this case (as reported) from the point of view of the more detached observer.

Freedom of contract and the right to have those contracts enforced is a fundamental plank of our civil liberties. On the face of it, this decision seems to suggest that a contractual obligation of confidentiality undertaken to a celebrity will often be unenforceable.

The reports of the decision suggest that the judge accepted arguments made on behalf of the News of the World that the revelations about the Beckhams’ private life were so much in the public interest that it outweighed their right to enforce the confidentiality agreement because of the commercial advantage the Beckhams are said to gain from their image as a happy family.

This argument seems to rest on a number of assumptions that would be difficult to prove – ie whether the Beckhams’ commercial success does depend on their family image; and does the nanny’s description in reality establish that the Beckhams’ home life is not happy overall.

Clearly, freedom of speech is a very important principle, but unregulated it potentially allows newspapers to be cavalier about issues of truth and confidentiality. At a recent public debate on the subject of regulation of the press, Tom Crone, the head of legal at News International, who represents the News of the World, based his argument against regulation on the proposition that it is better for 10 reputations to be ruined unfairly than for one important true story to be suppressed. The principle of qualified privilege as applied by the courts requires newspapers to observe relatively rigorous journalistic standards, but the only method of enforcing that principle is for individuals to embark upon expensive and risky litigation. In the course of the same debate, Brian Paddick, the assistant commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, gave a very vivid and moving account of the effect of a press campaign against him that involved both untrue allegations and a serious invasion of his privacy, and of the difficulties that he (despite being well educated and reasonably prosperous) faced in redressing the balance.

I appreciate that the Beckhams are not easily cast in the role of victims and I do not believe that they should generally be protected from comments on their private lives. However, it seems unfortunate that a ruling which may conceivably have been based on a lack of sympathy for them personally may have the effect of ensuring that no celebrity in future is able to keep any aspect of their private life confidential if it is possible for a newspaper to raise the argument that their private life is different from their public life. I hope we don’t hear the sound of floodgates opening as a result of this decision.

Joanne Kennedy head of dispute resolution Collyer-Bristow