Clauses Noted: 1, 3
Publication: Daily Mirror
Vanessa Feltz complained to the Press Complaints Commission through solicitors TSS Law of London that an article headlined "Vanessa's love No.2" published in the Sunday Mirror on July 15 2001 , an article headlined "We lay on her bed, her hands crept over my chest... all Vanessa ever wanted from me was sex" published in the Sunday Mirror on August 26 2001 and an article headlined "I read what Vanessa got up to in her garden and I just thought... Ugh!" published in The Mirror on August 30 2001 were inaccurate in breach of Clause 1 (Accuracy) and intruded into her privacy in breach of Clause 3 (Privacy) of the Code of Practice.
The complaints were rejected.
The first Sunday Mirror piece said that the complainant had a new boyfriend called Fitzroy Charles. The second carried his account of their relationship, including some intimate details, as well as a denial from the complainant that she had any physical relationship with him. The article in The Mirror followed these allegations and was based on an interview with fellow television presenter Trisha Goddard, who criticised the complainant and wondered why she was so interested in black men.
The complainant's solicitors said that the pieces were inaccurate. The Sunday Mirror had been told after the publication of the article on July 15 that Miss Feltz had denied having any physical relationship with Mr Charles, yet they still published his account of their alleged relationship on August 26. The solicitors said that this account was fictitious and that the complainant had only met him on two occasions - in a business context - since which time Mr Charles had pursued her to the point that she had had to change her mobile and home phone numbers. Trisha Goddard's comments were therefore based on inaccurate information which was repeated in The Mirror's article. All the pieces, the solicitors contended, failed to show the complainant sufficient respect for her private life.
The Sunday Mirror said that the information published on 15 July that the complainant had started a relationship with Fitzroy Charles had not come from him but from two independent and reliable sources. The paper accepted that the complainant had contacted the paper to deny any sexual relationship but said that the denials should be seen in the context of the fact that she had previously - inaccurately, it claimed - denied having a relationship with her previous boyfriend and the fact that her version of events altered under questioning from the editor of the Sunday Mirror. In these circumstances the paper stood by its first story, following which, it said, Mr Charles had corroborated the facts. It followed that it was not unreasonable to publish his version of events and the paper maintained that one sign that it was an accurate account was that Mr Charles had not claimed to have had sexual intercourse with the complainant. It suggested that had Mr Charles invented the story it would have been likely to contain much more
With regard to the interview with Trisha Goddard published in The Mirror, the paper said that it had simply published Ms Goddard's opinions on the complainant's behaviour following the break-up of her marriage.
The papers denied that the pieces had not shown respect for the complainant's private life. They said that the complainant was a 'celebrity of her own making' who had written books about herself and her family, had appeared in glossy magazines for payment, had appeared at film premieres and showbusiness events and had spoken often and publicly about her marital difficulties. The papers contended that it was inevitable that the media was interested in the complainant's private life, given that she had placed that life into the public domain in great detail.
The solicitors said that the complainant had actually gone to considerable lengths to keep her private and professional life separate and that she had only given a handful of interviews about her private and family life. Furthermore, the sorts of interviews she had given - including a feature in OK! magazine - were entirely different from the sort of material that the Commission was being asked to consider. In any case, none of them provided an excuse for inaccurate journalism. The solicitors also denied that the complainant had misled the media about a previous relationship and said that a contemporaneous piece claiming that she had admitted doing so was inaccurate.
The Commission first considered the complaints under Clause 1. At its heart this complaint concerned an objection by the complainant to any suggestion that she had had a physical or sexual relationship with Mr Charles. Clearly the Commission - which does not have the power of subpoena or cross-examination - was not in a position to decide whether or not such an intimate relationship had taken place. However, in rejecting the complaint under Clause 1 the Commission took into account a number of factors.
First, the Commission appreciated that the newspapers had believed that the complainant had not been honest with them about a previous relationship, and that they therefore did not believe her denials about this new alleged relationship. The complainant had denied this but it was the case that no complaint had been made about an article published in January 2001 that had said that the complainant had apologised for misleading journalists on The Mirror.
Second, there had been no doubt that the pair knew each other and in response to Mr Charles's highly detailed account of their relationship there was no reply other than that they had met to discuss business opportunities.
Third, the Commission noted that the piece in the Sunday Mirror of August 26 had been presented as Mr Charles's account of their relationship. The Commission considered that his account was presented as his own in accordance with the Code and that readers would have been aware that there would necessarily have been another point of view about the exact nature of their relationship.
Fourth, that piece had included a denial by the complainant that she had had any physical relationship and indeed contained an allegation that Mr Charles had been pursuing her. Taking into account all these reasons the Commission considered that the newspaper had taken sufficient care not to publish inaccurate material and found no breach of Clause 1 with regard to the articles in the Sunday Mirror. Having reached this conclusion, it could not find a breach of the Code in relation to the article in The Mirror, which simply contained the freely expressed views of Trisha Goddard about the complainant and what she had read. Ms Goddard had a right to express these views, which were clearly presented as her own in accordance with the Code.
The Commission then turned to the complaint under Clause 3. Clause 3 (i) is designed to protect individuals from the publication of true but intrusive stories about their private lives. In general, it does not therefore consider that untrue claims can be intrusive and noted that in this case the complainant had denied the story. However, having found no breach of Clause 1 the Commission considered the complaint under Clause 3 as if the claims were true - although, as stated above, it did not see how it could reasonably ascertain the facts of the matter given the evidence before it.
There was no doubt that the claims involved some personal details relating to what were alleged to be the complainant's sexual habits and relationships. However, this was not enough for the Commission to conclude that there had been a breach of the Code. The Commission has made clear on a number of occasions that it will take into account the extent to which similar matters have been discussed by the complainant or have been published before without complaint. Privacy is a right which can be compromised and those who talk about their private lives on their own terms must expect that there may be others who will do so, without their consent, in a less than agreeable way.
As with previous cases, the Commission had to decide whether the sort of material that was contained in the Sunday Mirror articles, and referred to in The Mirror's piece, was proportionate to that already in the public domain. It also had to bear in mind Mr Charles's - and the newspaper's - right to freedom of expression. Under the Code of Practice, which highlights the public interest inherent in freedom of expression, individuals clearly have a right to tell their own story. Mr Charles was exercising that right - and the newspaper had clearly presented the story as his own but balanced it with denials from Miss Feltz. It was written in a manner proportionate to the details of the case already in the public domain.
It was clear to the Commission that the public had been kept closely informed about the state of the complainant's previous relationships - in particular, but not exclusively, the breakdown of her marriage which the complainant had discussed at some length and which had excited much comment and speculation about which she had never complained. In these circumstances it was not, in the Commission's opinion, unreasonable for people who had been in relationships with the complainant to speak about them in public - indeed, to deny them this opportunity would arguably infringe their rights to freedom of expression. While the Commission accepted that part of the Sunday Mirror interview with Mr Charles included some references to intimate details it did not consider the material to be so salacious or detailed as to be disproportionate to the material already in the public domain. The Commission was therefore satisfied that the newspaper had taken account of all the circumstances and adequately balanced the complainant's right to privacy with Mr Charles's right to freedom of expression.
The complaints - which highlighted the difficulty inherent in balancing one individual's right to privacy with another's equally important right to freedom of expression, but also highlighted the importance of applying the Commission's case law - were rejected.
<< Go Back