Airbrushing history? Photos of Oxford Student Celebrations Raise Questions About Privacy Rights and Journalism

Airbrushing history? Photos of Oxford Student Celebrations Raise Questions About Privacy Rights and Journalism

A former Oxford University student asked image agency Alamy to remove photographs of her celebrating the end of exams. Now, the photographer accuses Alamy of “censoring the news”.  Is this a threat to freedom of the press, or has the woman’s human right of privacy been correctly protected?

The end of exams are a liberating and happy time for university students around the world. At Oxford, students take their celebrations to another level by partying en masse in the streets, covering each other in champagne, shaving foam, confetti, flour and silly string in a tradition known as “Trashing.”

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An Alamy photo of Oxford celebrations from 1968. “Trashing” has become a bit more crazy since the 1990’s.

Speaking to the Press Gazette, Photographer Greg Blatchford explained that during the 2014 Trashing, a student invited him to take photographs of her celebrating on the public streets. Some of the images show her swigging from a bottle of champagne, while in others she is covered in silly string.

Blatchford then sent “about 20” images to Alamy as news content. The former student subsequently stated that she “loved” the images in email correspondence to Blatchford, and even shared them on Facebook. This summer, four years later, the woman contacted Alamy to have the photos deleted. The company removed the images – much to Blatchford’s dismay.

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An Alamy stock image of Oxford University Trashing celebrations. Note: THIS IS NOT ONE OF THE SUBJECT PHOTOGRAPHS.

The right to be forgotten under the GDPR

Because the woman was able to be identified from the photographs, they constitute “personal data” as defined by Article 4 of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). Under Article 17 GDPR, data subjects have the right in certain circumstances to compel the erasure of personal data concerning him or her.

For example, if the data was originally collected or used because the individual gave their consent, and that consent is subsequently withdrawn, the company may honour the request for deletion (Article 17(1)(b)). However, a company can also use a “counter attack” if an exception applies. Importantly for news and media agencies, if keeping the data is necessary for exercising the right of freedom of expression and information, they may be able to refuse the request and keep the data (Article 17(3)(a)).

For more details on how the right to be forgotten works in practice, see my earlier post, Now You’re Just Somebody That I Used to Know.

Are journalists under threat from privacy lawyers?

Blatchford explained that although they are now considered “stock images,” they were originally “news” photos and should not have been removed. By deleting the photos, Alamy “are censoring the news. I’m incensed that someone can influence news journalism and censor the past where clearly if photographs are taken in public, with the full consent of participants they can turn around and say ‘sorry, that’s not news’ later. This sets a precedent for anybody to walk up to a news organisation and say I don’t like the pictures of me. Journalists will then start feeling the threat of lawyers.”

In a statement to the Press Gazette, Alamy’s director of community Alan Capel said the images were submitted as news four years ago, but moved 48 hours later to the stock collection. “Therefore we are surprised that this is deemed to be ‘censoring the news.’ As per our contract with our contributors, we can remove any images from our collection if we see a valid reason to do so.”

The university said that participating in trashing can lead to fines and disciplinary action since it is against the university’s code of conduct
The comical images of students wearing sub fusc (formal academic attire) while partying are often published in newspapers around the country in May.

Privacy and press freedom have long been considered competing interests, but that’s not to say that striking an appropriate balance between the two is impossible.

On some level, I do sympathise with the photographer. I also struggle to buy Alamy’s argument that the images are not “news content” and are now “stock images.” The classification of an image should be based on its context, purpose and subject matter – not the time that has elapsed since the event, nor the label attributed to it on a website.

Stock images are, by definition, professional photographs of common places, landmarks, nature, events or people. By contrast, the Oxford Trashing photos are attributed to a specific time (May), place (Oxford), category of people (students), and event (celebrating the end of exams). They are popular for several reasons. Firstly, they illustrate a charming and comical juxtaposition. Although these students attend one of the oldest and most prestigious Universities in the world, they are – after all – entitled to a bit of fun. Secondly, Trashing has received increased press attention in recent years, as students have become subject to complaints fines, disciplinary action, and even police enforcement. These images clearly show, in ways that words alone cannot, matters of public interest.

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In this particular instance however, I think Alamy have made the right decision in deleting the images.

Although the Press Gazette does not name the woman, it does note she is “a marketing director in New York.” It’s entirely plausible that she has valid concerns that the images of her participating in Trashing may negatively impact her reputation and career, or otherwise cause some sort of harm or embarrassment.

She claims that “there was no consent given to publish or sell my photos anywhere. I am not a model nor have given permission to any photographers to take photos of me to publicly display or to sell. This was a complete breach of privacy.” This contradicts what the email records show, but even if she had lawfully consented to the photographs being taken at the time, she is entirely within her rights to now withdraw consent. 

On balance, Alamy probably has dozens – if not hundreds – of images from the 2014 Trashing at Oxford. The likelihood that the images of this woman in particular are somehow especially newsworthy is minimal. Had Alamy refused to delete the photos, the woman would have been entitled to raise a complaint with the Information Commissioner’s Office. ICO enforcement action can include injunctions, sanctions, or monetary fines. Furthermore, Alamy would risk becoming known as an organisation that doesn’t care about privacy laws, thereby damaging its reputation.

Contrary to Blatchford’s concerns, it is doubtful that an organisation would delete a genuinely newsworthy image, simply because someone doesn’t like how they look. The right to be forgotten is not an absolute right to be purged from history, but a right to regain control of how information about you appears online.

For more details on how the right to be forgotten works in practice, see my earlier post, Now You’re Just Somebody That I Used to Know. If you’re interested in how celebrities control images of themselves, see Fame and Fortune: How do Celebrities Protect Their Image?

Header image by Alex Krook via Flickr

Sir Cliff Richards v BBC: is publicity the soul of justice?

Sir Cliff Richards v BBC: is publicity the soul of justice?

You don’t have to be a privacy or media lawyer to have heard of the sex abuse allegations levied against celebrities in the entertainment industry over the last few years. The investigations concerning Sir Cliff Richard, a famous British musician, included a widely-televised raid on his estate in Berkshire by South Yorkshire Police. Nearly four years after the BBC first named and shamed Sir Cliff in what is now considered to have been “sensationalist” journalism, the High Court has determined that his rights of privacy were infringed.

What makes this case so interesting is that it does not focus on defamation —that is, the publication (or voicing) of a statement which adversely affects another person’s reputation. Instead, Sir Cliff won his case on the basis that the BBC’s wrongful disclosure of his private information was an invasion of his privacy. 

In Sir Cliff Richard v BBC and South Yorkshire Policethe Court considered if suspects who have not been formally charged by police have a reasonable expectation of privacy in respect of the criminal investigation. How are an individual’s rights to privacy balanced against the freedom of expression enjoyed by media organisations? That the suspect in this case is a celebrity only complicates matters, as it calls into question the importance publishing private details in the name of public interest.

Prosecutors said in 2016 that there was not enough evidence to justify criminal charges against Mr. Richard, one of Britain’s best-known entertainers, with a career spanning some 60 years. However, the BBC stands by their reportage of the allegations, and I suspect the BBC will indeed appeal this decision.

As if written for the stage, the Justice Mann’s 120-page judgement begins with a summary of key characters and the plot as it unfolded…

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Daniel Johnson, in front of Sir Cliff’s Berkshire estate

Daniel Johnson, an investigative journalist for the BBC, received a tip-off from a police insider in June 2014 that Sir Cliff was under investigation for historic sex offences against a child. In a manner some would consider blackmail, Johnson “exploited the opportunity to get confirmation of his story about Sir Cliff, and more details if possible” from the South Yorkshire Police (SYP). In exchange for Johnson not publishing the story immediately, the SYP promised that he would be given advance notice of the search of Sir Cliff’s estate. The raid was eventually conducted in August 2014, with BBC crew waiting at the gates and helicopters hovering overhead to capture the whole ordeal.

In case you’re wondering where the Beeb’s lawyers were, the BBC held a meeting to discuss whether to name Sir Cliff and when to broadcast. In her testimony, Senior Editor Fran Unsworth explained that “the legal risk was diminishing because they had got a lot of confirmation of the facts of the story”. The principal legal concern seems to have been in respect of factual accuracy and defamation, and not privacy – as “the lawyers had not flagged that up to her as a specific risk” (para 111).

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the (not very exciting) footage shows plain-clothes police entering Sir Cliff’s estate.
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Three gloved individuals appear to be looking through what is likely Sir Cliff’s office

The legal framework of Sir Cliff’s privacy claim is enshrined in European Convention on Human Rights, brought into force in the UK by the Human Rights Act 1998.

Article 8 sets out the right to privacy: “Everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence. There shall be no interference by a public authority with the exercise of this right except such as is in accordance with the law […] or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.”

Article 10 upholds the BBC’s competing rights of expression: “Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers. The exercise of these freedoms, since it carries with it duties and responsibilities, may be subject to such formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalties as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society [including those] for the protection of the reputation or rights of others.”

In instances where which both Article 8 and Article 10 are engaged, the Court has to perform a balancing and weighing act to ascertain which predominates. Neither article has prima facie precedence over the other.

Article 8 privacy protections arise only where an individual has a reasonable expectation of privacy. For example, if I have a conversation with my friend in a crowded coffee shop in central London, I cannot reasonably expect our discussion to be protected as truly private.

The 77 year-old singer told the Court that he suffered an “unbelievable amount of hurt and pain” after the BBC broadcast the allegations that he had sexually assaulted a boy in 1985. “It felt like torture, sustained over almost two years. It felt as though everything I had done, everything I had built and worked to achieve, was being torn down, like life itself was coming to an end.”

But one might wonder if, as a celebrity, Sir Cliff cannot claim to have an expectation of privacy. A certain amount of emphasis was given by the BBC to the fact that Sir Cliff was a public figure, and one who had promoted his Christian beliefs. Because Sir Cliff had been so vocal (ie public) about Christian morality, the BBC considered that his alleged sexual crimes against a child qualified as a matter of public interest. To that point, the Court acknowledged that in certain special circumstances, the public’s right to be informed can extend into private aspects of public figures (para 276).

However,  Rocknroll v News Group Newspapers [2013] EWHC 24 (Ch) upheld that a public figure is not, by virtue of their fame, necessarily deprived of his or her legitimate expectations of privacy. Axel Springer v Germany 39954/08 [2012] ECHR 227 also makes clear that the safeguard afforded by Article 10 to journalists is subject to the proviso that they are acting in good faith and on an accurate factual basis, and that they provide “reliable and precise” information in accordance with the ethics of journalism.

In considering the BBC’s argument that the stories about Sir Cliff had been published in the public interest, the Court disagreed, saying that reporters at the BBC “were far more impressed by the size of the story and that they had the opportunity to scoop their rivals.” (para 280) This echoes the findings in Axel Springer, in that photographs and commentary which expose a person’s private life cannot be considered to have been published in the name of public interest, if they were in fact made public only to “satisfy the curiosity of a particular readership” (Axel Springer, para 48). It is unsurprising in my view that Justice Mann “came to the clear conclusion that Sir Cliff’s privacy rights were not outweighed by the BBC’s rights to freedom of expression” (para 315).

Publicity is the very soul of justice. In the darkness of secrecy, sinister interest and evil in every shape, have full swing. Only in proportion as publicity has place can any of the checks, applicable to judicial injustice, operate. Where there is no publicity there is no justice.

Jeremy Bentham. legal and social reformer (1748 – 1832)

Will this case have a chilling effect on media freedoms? Writing for The Guardian, Professor of Financial Journalism Jane Martinson argues that “as long as the media reports accurately – making it clear when a suspect is under investigation for a serious crime, rather than arrested or charged – there should be no bar to the public knowing what is going on.” However, in my view this fails to take into consideration the complexity of public perception. In his concluding remarks, Justice Mann cited “the failure of the public to keep the presumption of innocence in mind at all times” as an aggravating factor against the BBC.

Other criticisms focus on the point that this case provides an undeserved blanket of anonymity to criminals, providing a way to keep allegations against possible abusers secret. Whether or not there is a reasonable expectation of privacy in a police investigation is in actuality fact-sensitive question, and is not capable of a universal answer (para. 237). According to Police Guidance on Relationships with the Media, the names or identifying details of suspects of crime should not be released by police to the press or public, unless special circumstances apply — such as threat to life, the prevention or detection of crime, or a matter of public interest.

The inevitable stigma attached to the extremely serious allegations against Sir Cliff made the invasion of privacy even worse. When an individual’s good reputation is tarnished, even wrongfully, it may never be recoverable. This is especially harmful to celebrities, who rely so heavily on public favour. In my view, Sir Cliff Richards v BBC is not a sweeping new precedent that stifles freedom of the press: it simply restates the statutory protections afforded by the Human Rights Act within the context of already-established European and English case law.

Google prepares for the first “Right to Be Forgotten” trials in England

Google prepares for the first “Right to Be Forgotten” trials in England

All human beings have three lives: public, private, and secret.
― Gabriel García Márquez

The European Union’s Court of Justice decision in Google Spain v Agencia Española de Protección de Datos, Mario Costeja González (“Google Spain”) confirmed the “right to be forgotten” for European citizens. This right is further enshrined in the upcoming General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR). Accordingly, European data protection law grants individuals a qualified right to have personal data relating to them removed from search engines.

This right is however considered by some to be a uniquely European phenomena, which resulted from one unusual CJEU judgement. Now, two upcoming cases against Google will be the first time in which the “right to be forgotten” will be considered by the English Courts. 

Two unnamed claimants, known only as NT1 and NT2, are bringing a companion case against Google to enforce their right to be forgotten. (NT1 v Google and NT2 v Google,  [2018] EWHC 67 (QB) (Rev 3))

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Fame and fortune: how do celebrities protect their image?

Fame and fortune: how do celebrities protect their image?

Famous movie stars and athletes earn big bucks beyond their day job at the studio or stadium. Their image can be used to in a variety of commercial contexts, ranging from endorsements and sponsorships, to merchandising and deals with fashion brands and magazines. Marketwatch reports that on average, signing a celebrity correlates to a rise in share prices, and a 4% increase in sales. After Chanel signed Nicole Kidman in 2003 to promote their N°5 perfume, global sales of the fragrance increased by 30%.

Celebrities today spend a huge amount of time and energy developing and maintaining their public image. But here in the United Kingdom, “image rights” have never been clearly stated in law. So how do celebrities protect and control the publicity associated with their name, image, and brand?

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Lord Hutchinson, barrister who defended “Lady Chatterley’s Lover,” dies aged 102

Lord Hutchinson, barrister who defended “Lady Chatterley’s Lover,” dies aged 102

In October 1960, a jury formed at the criminal court in central London was asked to consider what would become one of the most important cases in modern English history. The trial concerned neither murder, treason, nor espionage, but the publication of D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover by Penguin Books. In honour of Lord Jeremy Hutchinson QC, a member of the Penguin defence team who passed away yesterday, here is a reminder of why Regina v. Penguin Books was such an enormous decision for the freedom of expression.

First published in 1928Lady Chatterley’s Lover tells the story of a young married woman, Lady Constance Chatterley. Her husband, Sir Clifford Chatterley, is handsome and wealthy, but paralysed from the waist down after injuring himself in the First World War. In addition to his physical (read: sexual) limitations, Clifford neglects Constance emotionally: her frustration leads to her affair with the estate’s gamekeeper, Oliver. A particular sex scene and liberal use of strong language including “fuck” and “cunt” led to it being banned in several countries.

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Comparing American & European Human Rights Norms

Comparing American & European Human Rights Norms
From the archives! I wrote this essay in 2012 for my coursework in European human rights law, as part of my masters’ degree. Reading it now, five years and a law degree later (!) is a bit cringe, but I think it does a fairly decent job of explaining some of the more theoretical differences in American and European approaches to human rights.
Is the European recognition of positive obligations in human rights law superior to the view taken by the United States Supreme Court?

In the Liberal tradition, democracies emphasise the political and civil rights of their citizenry: autonomy, the rule of law, and both positive and negative liberties of the individual are some of many examples. But what of the negative and positive obligations regarding the state, in as much as human rights are concerned? While the democratic values of Europe and America are largely built upon the same ideals, it is the means by which their different legal systems ascertain government duty wherein a fundamental divergence of responsibility occurs. Principally, the distinction centres on the reach of law, and to what extent conflicts can be ameliorated through courts.

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