Princess Caroline of Monaco

The court overturned a previous ruling that Princess Caroline of Monaco (pictured in 1998) had her privacy breached

Credit: John Stillwell/PA

Press freedom campaigners and lawyers acting on behalf of the media have welcomed two landmark European court rulings on privacy that justify media interest in celebrities' private lives.

The judgments, from the European Court of Human Rights, tip the balance further towards the article 10 right to free speech, and away from the right to privacy (article 8) and will provide a new reference point for future privacy rulings in national courts.

The first ruling related to an unnamed television actor who was reported by German newspaper Bild to have been arrested in a tent at the Munich beer festival for possession of cocaine in 2004.

The title was prohibited from running further stories on the case by a court in Hamburg. The European court this week said the publisher's right to freedom of expression had been interfered with, and that the actor was "sufficiently well known to qualify as a public figure, which reinforced the public's interest in being informed of his arrest and the proceedings against him".

The second case relates to Princess Caroline of Monaco, who since the early 1990s has been trying to prevent the publication of photos of her private life in the press.

German magazines published photos in 1993 and 1997 of the princess and Prince Rainier of Monaco taking a walk during a skiing holiday, accompanied by an article on the prince's poor health. A 2004 judgment by the European court found the photos had breached her privacy, but this was overturned this week.

The court ruled that the incident was an "event of contemporary society" and that "it could not be claimed that the applicants, who were undeniably very well known, were ordinary private individuals. They had to be regarded as public figures."

Padraig Reidy, from Index on Censorship, said the Princess Caroline of Monaco ruling had "huge consequences for the British press". This is because the test used in the original Princess Caroline ruling from the European Court of Human Rights - which stated that publication must contribute to "a debate of general interest to society" - has since been applied to other privacy cases.

Reidy said in a blog post: "Mr Justice Eady and his colleagues will now have a different ruling to look to - one which places free expression ahead of privacy."

Mark Dennis, a media lawyer at Taylor Wessing, told the New York Times [paywall]: "The court has expressly recognised the essential role played by the press in a democratic society, and the importance of journalistic freedom. The judgments will no doubt be a welcome relief for the UK media, given the current climate of scrutiny about press standards."

Privacy law specialist Caroline Kean, at law firm Wiggin, told the Guardian: "The [original] Caroline decision was relied on by celebrity solicitors to seek to stop the publication of any photographs of their clients that were not approved, and though it was not immediately incorporated in our laws, was relied on by the court of appeal in the JK Rowling case.

"This does redress the balance and makes it clear that even if Caroline did not seek out a public role, having been born into the royal family, she is a public figure and therefore photos of her other than at public functions can be legitimately published."

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