Von Hannover ruling tips balance in favour of free expression
Padraig Reidy: Von Hannover ruling tips balance in favour of free expression
07 Feb 12

While the Leveson Inquiry rumbled on today, rulings with huge consequences for the British press were handed down by the European Court of Human Rights.

Axel Springer v Germany and Hannover v Germany were both cases which tested the tension between the right to free speech and the right to privacy.

Von Hannover (in fact, this was Von Hannover v Germany no 2) was very important. The judgment concerned the definitions of public sphere, private life and public figure.

Since the 1990s, Caroline Von Hannover (daughter of the late King Ranier of Monaco and Grace Kelly) had sought to control publication of photographs of her in the German celebrity press.

To cut a long story very short, a 2004 judgment in Caroline Von Hannover v Germany 1 by the European Court found that photographs of the princess had indeed breached her article 8 right to privacy.

The judgment today concerned photographs of Caroline and her husband on a skiing holiday in Moritz, accompanied by an article on Prince Rainier’s health. Importantly, the court ruled that both that the prince’s health was an “event of contemporary society” and that Caroline and her husband were beyond doubt public figures.

The importance of the earlier Von Hannover rulings cannot be understated. In an interview with Index on Censorship last year, Mr Justice Eady, who deals with a large amount of privacy cases in the High Court, explained:

“As a rule courts must apply the test in the Princess Caroline case, von Hannover v Germany, decided by the human rights court in 2004: the decisive factor is whether the publication contributes to ‘a debate of general interest to society’.”

Mr Justice Eady and his colleagues will now have a different ruling to look to; one which places free expression ahead of privacy.

By Padraig Reidy

Padraig Reidy is the editor of Little Atoms and a columnist for Index on Censorship. He has also written for The Observer, The Guardian, and The Irish Times.