The importance of a £50,000 privacy payoff from The People newspaper to DJ Sara Cox has been downplayed by the Press Complaints Commission and described by director Guy Black as a “one-off”.
But it remains only the second time a celebrity has won substantial damages after suing under the privacy clause of the Human Rights Act 1998.
In 2001 Amanda Holden reached a £40,000 out-of-court settlement from the Daily Star after it published photos of her sunbathing topless in the garden of her Tuscany villa.
Similarly, the Cox photographs were of her topless on a private beach – this time on her honeymoon in October 2001.
The settlement, which included costs estimated at £200,000, has been interpreted by some as a blow to the power of the PCC. That is because, despite a 63-word apology brokered by the commission which appeared in the paper a week after it published the photos, Cox went on to sue.
But the watchdog has issued a robust defence of its role in the light of recent press coverage and issued a document entitled Sara Cox and the PCC – Myths and Facts.
Black told Press Gazette: “If people want to go to court they will, but I’m not losing any sleep over Sara Cox. Ninety nine per cent of people will continue to want to use our service.
“People are trying to build a great edifice on the flimsiest of foundations – this case doesn’t move the law along one jot. Since the Human Rights Act came in, only two people have managed to get some form of cash out of it. This was a one-off, unique case because there was no public interest defence.” He added: “I’m sure that is the reason why they settled.” The Cox settlement came to light in a front-page exclusive in Saturday’s Guardian headlined “Sara Cox wins key human rights ruling”. In fact, the case was settled out of court, so no judgment was made and it will have no bearing on UK case law. The Guardian later published a correction.
Cox’s lawyer, Keith Schilling, said: “The People was avoiding a ruling being made that would establish a legal precedent.
“But in doing so it has created a commercial precedent. One issue it raises is the role of the PCC in these cases. One of the reasons why claimants bring proceedings is they don’t think it’s acceptable that the tabloids can avoid censure by publishing an apology.”
He added that the payout was based on the value of the photos rather than the level of distress caused and that the deal included an agreement to return all the images in question and destroy any copies.
A spokesman for The People said: “A week after the pictures of Sara Cox and [husband] Jon Carter were published, The People apologised and recognised that the use of the pictures had upset them.
“We settled because both sides were able to come to an agreement, and we are happy that the case has now been resolved.”
Celebrity publicist Max Clifford said he believed the case would help to “even up the playing field” between newspaper editors and celebrities.
He added: “It will make people more aware, particularly the stars, that they have got another recourse.”
A parliamentary inquiry into privacy and the media reports on Monday and there has been speculation that it will recommend that the PCC reports to the new media regulator Ofcom.
PCC bids to explode myths about Sara Cox nude pix ‘ruling’
The Press Complaints Commission this week issued a document defending its role in the Sara Cox affair and clarifying the “myths and the facts”.This is an edited version of the PCC’s rebuttal.
Myth 1: The new “ruling” on the Cox case is a blow for press freedom and an attack on self regulation.
Fact: There has never been any ruling in the Cox case. The case was settled out of court which means there is no new jurisprudence to add to that already established under the Human Rights Act.
Myth 2: The PCC failed in the Cox case because it did not adjudicate and censure the newspaper.
Fact: The PCC never had the opportunity to adjudicate. Seven days after the pictures appeared and one day after the newspaper published the apology to Cox brokered through the PCC she decided to take legal action. The PCC was therefore immediately precluded from taking any further action.
Myth 3: The PCC should never have sought to resolve the matter and the apology to Cox brokered through the PCC was in any case inadequate.
Fact: The PCC tries to resolve every dispute. Resolution does not, however, always preclude further action. The PCC could still have gone on to adjudication in view of the serious nature of the matter, if Cox had not taken legal action. The apology was agreed with Cox’s agent in every detail. It is not clear why she should have agreed to an apology which she subsequently found “inadequate”.
Myth 4: The case is a landmark because it shows people can go on to sue newspapers after negotiating a resolution to a complaint.
Fact: Ever since the PCC was established, complainants have been able to take legal action against a newspaper after the PCC has finished dealing with their complaint.
Myth 5: This case shows the PCC’s sanctions are defective.
Fact: The PCC never had the opportunity to deploy its sanctions, critical adjudication and reference to the publisher, because Cox’s actions stopped it from doing so.
Myth 6: Celebrities will simply bypass the PCC and go straight to court.
Fact: Any complainant is free to go straight to court to settle a dispute with a newspaper. This case changes nothing. Since the Human Rights Act was implemented three years ago fewer than a dozen privacy cases have been heard. During that time the commission has dealt with more than 1,500 privacy cases.
Myth 7: The PCC never attempted to get at the facts.
Fact: This was a privacy case where any disputed facts were likely to be irrelevant. If the PCC had been allowed to adjudicate, it would have done so under Clause 3 of the Editors’ Code which requires a judgment not on facts but on the balance between right to privacy and the public interest.
Myth 8: This case demonstrates the PCC’s inability to deal with blatant abuses of the Editors’ Code of Practice.
Fact: The PCC was never allowed to deal with any abuse in this case because a legal action prevented it from doing so.
By Dominic Ponsford