The publication of holiday snaps of the Duchess of Cambridge last week – with those images inevitably set to take a virtual tour of the globe thanks to the world wide web – have exposed more than just skin.
What has been laid bare has been the complete inadequacy of the law to deal with what most regard as a revolting invasion of privacy.
As has been widely reported, France is famous for its ‘tough’ privacy laws, which in the past have often been used to protect politicians.
But rigorous laws become meaningless when there is far more profit to be made by breaching them and paying the fine.
While there are arguments about the pictures having been taken from a public highway (albeit with what is reported to have been a very long lens, by an individual who – presumably – would not have been standing in plain sight) the general consensus seems to be that an action for breach of French privacy laws would be very likely to succeed.
But even if there is a successful prosecution against the original publishers, this will do nothing to prevent the further publication. As the Italian magazine Chi has pointed out, as the first magazine to publish the images, the French Closer, is in a rather different position to those that then choose to reproduce images now already in the public domain.
Even as the royal couple’s solicitors Harbottle & Lewis began dictating its first letter informing the French magazine of impending legal action, the images were already on their way to an Italian printer.
The more the images are reproduced, the safer it will be to reproduce them, and - sure as night follows day - they will be published across the world both in print and online.
How many legal actions would the royal couple realistically be able to bring? How many national laws would come into play? If the images were still worth publishing in France, where privacy law is supposed to be robust, what chance would there be of any successful legal action in the US, which lies at the other end of the spectrum in terms of privacy issues?
There is no international law to be enforced, and no prospect of one being agreed between governments, which are currently battling with other priorities.
The sad fact is that, in this global and digital age, the law is a toothless beast, powerless to have any real deterrent effect for invasion of privacy. For lawyers, that is a pretty depressing thought.
Rachel Rothwell is editor of Litigation Funding magazine, providing in-depth coverage on costs and the financing of litigation.
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