Private lives of the super rich

By Anna Doble

The heiress to the Versace millions, Allegra Versace Beck, has won
an apology from Now magazine after complaining to the PCC. Her
complaint stemmed from the publication on 15 September of an article
headlined: “Yes, you can be too rich and too thin”. The Now article had
speculated on Versace Beck’s health and was illustrated by photographs
of her shopping in London. The resolution of the complaint gives one of
the first indications of how last year’s ruling of the European Court
of Human Rights (ECHR) in the case of Caroline von Hanover v Germany
(Caroline of Monaco) will impact upon UK publishers, and more
particularly how the PCC code will be affected.

Versace Beck is the daughter of the flamboyant Donatella Versace and
Paul Beck, a former model. When Allegra Versace Beck turned 18 last
year she became an heiress to the Versace estate. Many presumed that
with her inheritance of the controlling stake in the company (worth an
estimated £130 million)n came a role in the day-to-day running of the
Versace fashion house or at least a prominent and public-facing role
within the company. Suppliers to the fashion house met news of her
inheritance with approval, commenting that it might result in
management decisions being taken more quickly. Fashion commentators
also believed that Versace Beck would have a direct role in the fashion
house and speculated on the effect that the inheritance would have on
the latest Versace collection.

The true position, recently made
apparent by Versace Beck’s lawyers, is that she is currently a student
in the USA. Versace Beck plays no major role within the company and,
for now, is merely a shareholder alongside her mother and uncle (albeit
a sizeable and therefore potentially powerful one). This information is
crucial: only with this clarification could a decision about whether
Versace Beck was a public person be taken.

In the eyes of the ECHR, the distinction between whether someone is a public or private person is of supreme importance.

to its decision in von Hanover was their finding that Princess Caroline
was not a public person. In making that finding the ECHR adopted a very
strict view of what constituted a public role. The ECHR determined that
despite being the president of “certain humanitarian or cultural
foundations” such as the Princess Grace foundation and the Prince
Pierre de Monaco foundation, and representing the royal family at
events such as the Red Cross Ball or the opening of the International
Circus Festival, Princess Caroline carried out no function on behalf of
the State of Monaco or any of its institutions. Publishers could be
forgiven for failing to see the distinction.

The principles that
can be drawn from von Hanover (and which must be given effect by the
English courts and now, by implication, by the PCC) are these:

(1) All photographs relating to a person’s private life should not
be published unless they consent or there is a public interest in doing
so. Any such photographs that are published must contribute to a debate
of general interest.

(2) There is no public interest in publishing details of a person’s private life to satisfy public curiosity.

There may be a public interest in knowing details about the private
lives of public figures, such as politicians, but only where doing so
would contribute to a public or political debate.

(4) Being well known to the public is different from being a public figure.

von Hanover , there would have been a credible argument for saying that
there was a public interest – within a wealth, fame and
celebrity-obsessed culture – of knowing that being rich did not
necessarily equate to a trouble-free life.

Versace Beck was not a
minor, she was part of a very famous family, the success of whose
company could affect a number of people.

Post von Hanover , the
analysis has to be that, as Versace Beck did not ask to be born into
the Versace family, she is not a public figure. The fame of her
relatives and the size of her inheritance are irrelevant.

von Hanover there have been many claimant lawyers quick to sound the
death knell for consumer magazine publishers, whose magazines contain a
substantial quantity of paparazzi photographs of the famous going about
their everyday lives. However before publishers become too depressed at
the outcome of the Versace Beck and von Hanover cases, they should note
that both were of a very similar type. Cases involving celebrities, who
have chosen to become public figures, should be decided differently.

Anna Doble is a litigation lawyer with specialist media firm Wiggin & Co

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