The Sun’s front-page story about a three-decade-old family tragedy involving England’s summer sporting hero Ben Stokes generated widespread revulsion.
Pressure group Hacked Off, still smarting from the abandonment of Leveson 2 by a Tory government keen to keep its press backers onside, has led further calls for tougher media regulation. To what degree do these trenchant appeals stand up? And does Stokes himself have any sort of case?
Carter-Ruck confirmed my own belief that much of the commentary is ill-directed. Senior associate Dominic Garner stressed what many seem to have forgotten – that Leveson 2’s focus was intended to be the relationship between journalists and the police, including allegations of criminality/corruption. Part 2, he tells me, would have been unlikely to have any significant bearing on issues in the Stokes case, which effectively concern the traditional questions of whether the information is private; and whether the subject’s rights of privacy in that information outweigh the publisher’s freedom of expression.
So what of the ‘instant case’? My trade paper, the Press Gazette, was adamant: ‘I don’t think reporting on two murders (even 31 years after the event) can reach the legal definition of a breach of privacy,’ tweeted the editor. ‘This is public domain information.’
From this, I suggest, we are invited to infer that it would be a grievous day for press freedom when newspapers can be arraigned for poor taste. Indeed it would. But Carter-Ruck’s Garner does not believe matters are so clear-cut. Even though the fact of the events is a matter of public record that was reported at the time, the family may still have a ‘reasonable expectation of privacy’ over the reporting, or aspects of it, given the passage of time and the effect that this intrusion has had on them.
‘The fact Ben Stokes is a “public figure” will not on its own justify the publication of a story about his family’s trauma and reaction to the tragedy,’ says Garner.
As the Gazette went to press, one thing seemed certain. As with its notorious Hillsborough ‘expose’ of 1989, the Sun looks likely to lose more readers than it gains.