Royal privacy

How much privacy can William and Kate reasonably expect?

We are expected to take an interest in the new Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. That has legal implications for their privacy.

You may be wishing by now that someone would get an injunction to stop people going on (and on) about the royal wedding and gagging orders. But last week's very public "private" marriage, with all its attendant pomp and splendour – which took place in a week when journalist Andrew Marr's decision to resile from his own injunction inflamed the debate about what is and isn't anyone else's business – should give us pause for thought about the way our interest in the private lives of public figures may be manufactured one minute and slapped down the next.

It is also worth reflecting that Von Hannover, the case giving so much trouble to those opposing privacy injunctions, featured another royal family. When the European Court of Human Rights decided, in 2004, that Princess Caroline of Monaco had a legitimate expectation of privacy in public places when she was going about her daily life, it set a high hurdle for publication. The decisive factor in privacy cases featuring public figures is "the contribution that the published photos or articles make to a debate of general interest", said the Strasbourg court.

Never, well not since the last big royal marriage in 1981, has the entire population been so exhorted to Look! Look! at a celebrity couple. ''I think the world will be looking at this royal wedding," said David Cameron earlier this year. "I think we will be very proud of it in the UK, but above all it's two young people who love each other very much". This has been a pageant, an expensive, national extravaganza, and there has been an insistence from all quarters that we Look! Look!

People refusing to take a mawkish interest in the happy couple are made to feel freakish, curmudgeonly, unpatriotic even because scrutinising brand Will & Kate (we are on familiar terms, though they are perfect strangers to us) is not just encouraged, it is required thinking. It is good for the country. So we really must LOOK! LOOK! at them. And if people continue to stare and to take an interest in the intimate details of the celebrity couple's lives long after this event, who can really blame them?

Someone will. Judges are fond of the aphorism that the public interest is not the same as what is interesting to the public. As Baroness Hale put it in Jameel v Wall Street Journal (a libel case):

"The public only have a right to be told if two conditions are fulfilled. First, there must be a real public interest in communicating and receiving the information. This is, as we all know, very different from saying that it is information that interests the public-the most vapid tittle-tattle about the activities of footballers' wives and girlfriends interests large sections of the public but no-one could claim any real public interest in our being told all about it."

Members of the royal family, particularly those nearest the throne, are in a category of their own as public figures. While footballers, play football and actors act, the upper echelons of the royal family function purely as figureheads. They are there to be stared at and we are supposed to take an interest in them. If we stop looking at them they cease to have any point at all as ceremonial figures. They are of course entitled to privacy, but when we are inevitably told that the royal couple have a reasonable expectation of privacy, perhaps even when they are in public places, I hope that we will all remember the spectacle of this royal wedding, and the insistence that we take an interest in the private lives of these public figures.

(Published by The Guardian - May 2,2011)

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