'Obvious public interest' in Telegraph's top scientist lockdown love affair scoop, says media law expert

The Telegraph scoop, revealing a scientist who advised on the UK lockdown had been secretly visited by his married lover during the pandemic, was in the public interest, a media law expert has said.

The exclusive story exposed Professor Neil Ferguson’s actions, which flouted restrictions on movement imposed, on his advice, by the UK Government to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

The story also revealed the relationship between the professor and his lover, whom the Telegraph identified and pictured and said is married and living with her husband and two children.

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The pair were pictured on the front page of today’s Telegraph (below).

The Ferguson story was written by deputy political editor Anna Mikhailova, chief political correspondent Christopher Hope, Louisa Wells and former Press Gazette journalist of the year Michael Gillard.

Many on Twitter suggested it was an unwarranted breach of privacy, including high-profile Observer writer Carole Cadwalladr who said: “Solidarity to @neil_ferguson. He’s not a politician. He’s a scientist. Who’s had his privacy invaded by a newspaper with a pretty clear political agenda. Any country that fails to defend its scientists from political interference frankly doesn’t deserve them.”

Media law expert David Banks said such relationships are a private matter and the court would ordinarily grant injunctions to prevent publication or award damages after the fact.

But, he added: “There is a very obvious public interest in revealing that the man who advised the government on the lockdown is not obeying the lockdown himself, and has done so repeatedly.

“The nature of the breach has to be revealed as well – this is not a fleeting visit to a relative or something of that nature, nor is it a visit that many people would regard as essential.”

Under lockdown rules, people should only leave their homes for exercise, essential food supplies, medical treatment or, in some cases, work.

Banks, a consultant and trainer in media law, said the public interest in revealing the “lover’s” identity is “ a little less clear cut” as she does not hold an advisory position with the government.

Although he said there may be a public interest defence in the fact that she reportedly suspected that her husband had symptoms of coronavirus when she journeyed across London to see Prof Ferguson on one occasion.

The Telegraph revealed the married couple were understood to have an open relationship. The husband and children were not identified.

 

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