Exercising a public function: Spelman v. Express Newspapers [2012] EWHC 355 (QB)

April 18, 2012

Uncategorized

Redacted (public version) of the transcript: http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/QB/2012/355.html

Guardian newspaper report: http://www.guardian.co.uk/sport/2012/apr/16/rfu-environment-secretary-drug-taking

A lot has been recently written about Jonathan Spelman, a 17year old boy and son of a Cabinet Minister (Caroline Spelman is Member of Parliament and Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) and on the 16th April he was formally suspended from Rugby by the RFU for 21months for an anti-doping violation: http://www.rfu.com/News/2012/April/NewsArticles/160412_Spelman_judgment.aspx .

While the details of this anti-doping violation are now public knowledge, as is his unsuccessful fight to seek a privacy injunction barring reporting of this, what is perhaps more interesting is the Court’s view about sport.

 

The Background to the case

Jonathan Spelman played rugby for England U16 and for Harlequins RFC however he suffered a serious cruciate ligament injury in September 2011 which prevented him from playing. According to newspaper reports, he then ordered a series of steroids over the internet in an attempt to speed his recovery. The RFU name these substances as: testosterone, drostanolone (both anabolic steroids), growth hormone (GHRP6), human chorionic gonadotropin (HCG), clomid (clomiphene) and nolvadex (tamoxifen).

The Privacy injunction was an attempt to prevent the Daily Star Sunday (a tabloid newspaper) from revealing these allegations, an effort that subsequently failed. The resulting publicity in the media ultimately led to his voluntary appearance before the RFU’s independent disciplinary tribunal last month. Earlier this week, the tribunal reduced his anti-doping violation by three months to take into account his youth, immaturity and admission of guilt.

 

The Privacy Injunction attempt

Although the Daily Star Sunday did not yet have a fully written article, they were making enquiries of various parties to try to corroborate their information about Jonathan. After they approached these sources, they were contacted by the Claimant’s solicitors who instructed them to effectively cease and desist what they felt was an invasion of privacy and a political assault against Mrs Spelman.

By contrast, Express Newspapers argue that by giving full and prior notification of a potential story, they acted properly and responsibly, a principle that Max Mosley has previously campaigned on: http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2011/jun/02/max-mosley-media-warn-subjects-expose . They also argued that Mrs Spelman was only an incidental aspect to the story [25] and that the key fact is that Jonathan is an elite sportsman who aspires to play at national and international level [66].

The initial hearing was on Saturday 11th February 2012, see here for a redacted judgment:http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/QB/2012/239.html and http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/QB/2012/392.html

As with many privacy cases, the crux of the case turned on the interpretation of the Human Rights Act 1998 and the balancing exercise that needed to be undertaken between the diametrically opposite rights enshrined by Article 8 (Right to respect for private and family life) and Article 10 (Right to freedom of expression). At [30], the Court confirmed that neither of the Articles took precedence over the other, instead, the importance of each right, the justifications for any interference, and the proportionality of any action should be carefully reviewed. The Court also re-stated the importance of maintaining open justice and the public accountability of the Courts [19].

See: http://www.headoflegal.com/2012/02/24/spelman-injunction-lifted/ for an interesting analysis of this balancing exercise.

As an aside, at [24], there is also an interesting discussion of the mechanics of how Sunday papers work and the exclusivity they prize over the daily titles that could effectively scoop them to reporting ‘their’ story if the injunction was discharged during the week .

 

Unfettered Watchdogs

While the paper expressed the view that it would be cheaper to not contest the injunction, they felt that this would place serious constraints on their freedom of expression and their function as a ‘unfettered Watchdog in a democratic society’. Perhaps surprisingly, the Court broadly agreed and cited what it saw as two key paragraphs specifically applying and underpinning this principle in sport.

6. The Assembly is aware that personal privacy is often invaded, even in countries with specific legislation to protect it, as people’s private lives have become a highly lucrative commodity for certain sectors of the media. The victims are essentially public figures, since details of their private lives serve as a stimulus to sales. At the same time, public figures must recognise that the position they occupy in society — in many cases by choice — automatically entails increased pressure on their privacy.

7. Public figures are persons holding public office and/or using public resources and, more broadly speaking, all those who play a role in public life, whether in politics, the economy, the arts, the social sphere, sport or in any other domain.

Resolution 1165 (1998) of the Parliamentary assembly of the Council of Europe on the Right to Privacy

And from the recent Grand Chamber case of Axel Springer AG v. Germany [2012] ECHR 227 (7 February 2012) [90]:

An initial essential criterion is the contribution made by photos or articles in the press to a debate of general interest (see Von Hannover, cited above, § 60; Leempoel & S.A. ED. Ciné Revue v. Belgium, no. 64772/01, § 68, 9 November 2006; and Standard Verlags GmbH v. Austria (no. 2), no. 21277/05 § 46, 4 June 2009). The definition of what constitutes a subject of general interest will depend on the circumstances of the case. The Court nevertheless considers it useful to point out that it has recognised the existence of such an interest not only where the publication concerned political issues or crimes….. but also where it concerned sporting issues or performing artists (see Nikowitz and Verlagsgruppe News GmbH v. Austria, no. 5266/03, § 25, 22 February 2007; Colaço Mestre and SIC – Sociedade Independente de Comunicação, S.A. v. Portugal, nos. 11182/03 and 11319/03, § 28, 26 April 2007; and Sapan v. Turkey, no.44102/04, § 34, 8 June 2010).

The Court held that given this, and the fact that at least one of the facts was true (and thereby could act as a complete defence to any potential defamation action [60]), it would be in the public interest for the newspaper to publish. The Court did however recognise that such an article could be intrusive or offensive depending on how it was written [102] and reserved the right to award damages (including aggravated damages) for the disclosure of private information if the publisher could not justify its use [120].

 

Child Athletes

The rest of the judgment is comparatively unreported; however I would argue that it is actually the most interesting and far-reaching part! Essentially, the Court moved from the basic proposition that children enjoy no general rights to privacy simply because of their age [53], to suggesting that the fact that Jonathan was nearly 18 was irrelevant as the principles of the case and the public nature of his role would equally have applied by virtue of his status as an international U16 player [72].

While I would not recommend using Mr Justice Tugendhat’s comments at [68] to meet the Government’s legacy sport targets for youth sports participation:

The material benefits to those few children who succeed at the highest level can be fabulous. But these benefits may come at a high price. It is a matter of common knowledge that the effort to achieve the highest honours in sport can damage a person’s health and family life, and lead to an early death, or even to a life of misery when careers end early and in disappointment. But the price in terms of health and happiness may be paid even by the less successful performers (being the overwhelming majority, of course) without their ever obtaining the material or other significant benefits.

It is his subsequent comments that are potentially the most significant. At [69], Tugendhat J suggests that:

69….those engaged in sport at the national and international level are subject to many requirements which are not imposed on other members of the public. Matters relating to their health have to be disclosed and monitored, and they may have little if any control over the extent to which such information is disseminated. It is a condition of participating in high level sport that the participant gives up control over many aspects of private life. There is no, or at best a low, expectation of privacy if an issue of health relates to the ability of the person to participate in the very public activity of national and international sport.

He then proceeds to extend this principle even further beyond professional athletes to journeyman athletes who merely ‘aim for’ rather than necessarily achieve the highest levels of sport [70].  Strictly speaking this area of the judgment is obiter, however it does make me wonder how many current child athletes (and their parents) understand the responsibilities that this extension of the principle entails. Not only are national and international child athletes role models and can legitimately be subjected to public scrutiny, but so now are lower level younger athletes. How far does this diminution of reasonable expectation of privacy extend? County level? What about pupils competing in the National School Games? It will be interesting to see how this area develops.

One last paragraph that sports governing bodies may wish to address is the potential ethical and welfare concerns raised by the Court in [107] that:

…..the demands made on children for the benefit of sport have increased very greatly over that period. Whereas in the past there was relatively little money to be made out of sport by anyone, sport has in recent years generated huge revenues, mostly from broadcasting and other intellectual property rights. So there is a risk that those responsible for organising national and international sporting activities may have interests that conflict with the welfare of the children who participate, or aspire to participate, in these activities.

Is this Tugendhat J’s response to the furore over Tom Daley’s media commitments, or is he suggesting that greater work should be undertaken to ensure that young athletes in professional and elite sport are not just protected from abusive relationships, but from the pressures and responsibilities of playing sport itself?

Ironically, this judgment has only increased these pressures.

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About Kris

Senior Lecturer in Law, Staffordshire University; British Gymnastics Senior Coach / Assessor / Tutor

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