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The Guardian’s allegations that the News of the World had illegally tapped the phones of possibly thousands of public figures was met with wry amusement by those who battle for claimants against media defendants.
Those who follow such matters will recall the speech given by Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre to the Society of Editors last November, which attracted widespread publicity at the time. In it, Dacre complained that the balance between privacy and freedom of expression had shifted too far in favour of the individual, and that one judge, Mr Justice Eady, through his “arrogant and amoral” judgments, was single-handedly bringing in “a privacy law by the back door”.
One wonders in what terms he would describe the alleged activities of the News of the World?
To the general public, the allegations must have come as an important reality check. What they read in the media tends to be self-serving articles bemoaning how iniquitous and unfair the libel and privacy laws in this country are.
These events serve as a timely and valuable reminder that the laws are there for a purpose. They provide a vital check on the excesses of the media. If the media behaves like this with the laws as they are, imagine how it would conduct itself if they were removed or diluted.
To lawyers, the most startling aspect of this saga lies in the amount of compensation for the invasion of privacy which the News of the World agreed to pay Gordon Taylor, chief executive of the Professional Footballers’ Association.
The Guardian reported that £700,000 was paid, “which included more than £400,000 in damages”. Two other victims are reported to have been “paid more than £300,000 in damages and costs”.
These figures would blow the lid off the level of privacy damages that the courts have awarded to date. The highest court award was made last year to Max Mosley (against the News of the World) over the revelations about his private sexual proclivities.
The amount awarded to Mosley was only £60,000, and for a case where Eady J said of the claimant: “He is hardly exaggerating when he says his life was ruined.”
Even this figure represented a huge increase on the £3,500 that Naomi Campbell - after taking the claim all the way to the House of Lords - recovered from the Daily Mirror over the publication in 2001 of a photograph of herself emerging from a Narcotics Anonymous meeting.
Consequently, awards and settlements for privacy claims have tended to be relatively modest and in line with the guidance set by previous cases.
However, the settlements apparently agreed by the News of the World in these phone-tapping cases suggest that the newspaper secretly recognises that the proper value of a gross invasion of privacy, breach of confidence or misuse of private information claim is very much higher than the compensation figures awarded to date.
It could be that while the law has been developing in these relatively new areas, the courts have consciously kept damages at a low level while they wait to see what sort of cases come before them - and perhaps while they also assess the public mood to these kind of claims.
Those shackles can now surely be thrown off and damages can be permitted to rise to a level which that reliable barometer of the ordinary Briton, the News of the World, sees as appropriate.