Conflict of Laws header image

Muir Watt on Kate Provence Pictures

Horatia Muir Watt is a professor of law at Sciences-po Paris Law School.

Cachez ce sein…It seems to me that this case – which is perhaps less intrinsically interesting, even from a conflict of laws perspective, than other recent instances in which the cross-border exercise of the freedom of press is challenged in the name of competing values, such as Charlie Hebdo and the satirical caricatures of Mahomet, or The Guardian and the Trasfigura super-injunction – serves to illustrate the relative indifference of the content of the relevant choice of law rules when fundamental rights are in balance. As so much has already been written about possible additions to Rome II in privacy or defamation cases, I shall concentrate on what could be called the Duchess of Cambridge hypothesis: whatever the applicable rules, the only real constraint on adjudication in such an instance, and the only real arbiter of outcomes, is the duty of the court (assumed to be bound, whatever its constitutional duties, by the European Convention on Human Rights, or indeed the Charter if Rome II were in the end to cover censorship issues) to carry out a proportionality test in context. 

One might start with a few thoughts about the balance of equities in this case. Back at the café du commerce (or the ranch, or the street, or indeed anywhere where conventional wisdom takes shape), the debate is usually framed in moral terms, but remains inconclusive, neither side inspiring unmitigated sympathy. On the one hand, invasion of privacy of public figures by the gutter press (however glossy) can on no account be condoned. If the royal couple were stalked in a private place by prying paparazzi, then the immediate judicial confiscation of the pictures by the juge des référés was more than justified. Of course, there is clearly a regrettable voyeur-ism among the general public that supports a market for pictures of intimate royal doings. The real responsibility may lie therefore with those governments which have failed adequately to regulate journalistic practices. On the other hand (so the debate goes), the main source of legitimacy of devoting large amounts of public resources to fund the essentially decorative or representational activities of national figures abroad (whether royals, ambassadors or others) lies in the reassuring, inspiring or otherwise positive image thus projected, which in turn serves to divert attention from domestic difficulties, to smooth angles in foreign policy etc. Surely the Duchess of Cambridge, who appears to have been driven from the start by a compelling desire to enter into this role, should have taken particular care to refrain from endangering the public image of niceness of which the British royal family places its hope for survival? Moreover, she can hardly claim not to be accustomed to the prying of the gutter press at home – although of course, in England, the medias may be more easily gagged (see Trasfigura), and have apparently agreed in this instance to remain sober, in the wake of last year’s hacking scandals and in the shadow of pending regulation. And so on… 

The circularity of this imagined exchange is not unlinked to the well-known difficulties encountered in the thinner air of legal argument. The conflict involving the invasion of privacy of public figures (including those who otherwise capitalize on publicity), and claims to journalistic freedom of expression (albeit by paparazzi whose profits rise in direct proportion to the extent to which they expose the intimacy of the rich and famous), is both a hard case (in terms of adjudication of rights) and a true conflict (in terms of the conflict of laws). As to the former, of course, there is no more an easy answer in this particular case than an adequate way of formulating general legal principle. If these unfortunate photographs do not provide a convincing enough example, the (less trivial?) Charlie Hebdo case reveals a conflict of values and rights which is equally divisive and ultimately insoluble from “above”, that is, in terms of an overarching, impartial determination of rights and duties. Take Duncan Kennedy’s A Semiotics of Legal Argument (Academy of European Law (ed.),?Collected Courses of the Academy of European Law, Volume Ill. Book 2, 309-365): all the oppositional pairs of conventional argument-bites can be found here, within the common clusters of substantive or systemic legal arguments (morality, rights, utility or expectations, on the one hand; administrability and institutional competence, in the other), as well as all the various “operations” which they instantiate. Thus, when challenged with invasion of privacy, Closer responds, predictably, by denial (“no, we did not cross the bounds, the royals were visible through a telescopic lense”); counter-argument (“well, we merely made use of our fundamental freedom in the public interest”); the formulation of an exception to an otherwise accepted principle (“yes, we admit that the pictures were unauthorized, but these were public figures whose deeds are traditionally of public interest”); then finally by “shifting levels” from the fault/not fault to the terrain of the reality of injury. How could anyone possibly complain about pictures which were both esthetic and modern, and which will undeniably contribute to bring glamour to the somewhat fuddy-duddy, or goody-goody, royal style?

What does all this tell us about the conflict of laws issue? Potentially, the choice of connecting factor entails significant distributional consequences in such a case. At present, outside the sway of Rome II, each forum makes its own policy choices in respect of conflict of law outcomes, and these probably balance each other out across the board in terms of winners and losers – at the price of transnational havoc on the way (through the risk of parallel proceedings and conflicting decisions, which Brussels I has encouraged with Fiona Shevill, although Martinez may be a significant improvement in this respect). If it were to be decided at some point that Rome II should cover privacy and personality issues, whatever consequences result from the choice of any given connecting factor would obviously be amplified through generalization; the risk of one-sidedness would then have to be dealt with. However, as illustrated by the continued failures of attempts to design an adequate regime in Rome II, any such scheme is highly complex. One might initially assume, say, that editors generally choose to set up in more permissive jurisdictions, whereas victims of alleged violations might more frequently issue from more protective cultures, which encourage higher expectations as to the protection of privacy or personality rights. Any clear-cut rule would therefore be likely to favor either the freedom of the press (country of origin principle, constantly lobbied by the medias from the outset), or conversely the right to privacy (place of harm or victim’s habitual residence). However (and allowing for the switch from privacy to defamation), while the Charlie Hebdo case may conform to this pattern, the Duchess of Cambridge affair turns out to be (more or less) the reverse. To establish a better balance, therefore, exceptions must be carved out, whichever principle is chosen as a starting point. The place of injury might be said to be paramount, unless there are good reasons to derogate from it under, say, a foreseeability exception in the interest of the defendant newspaper. Alternatively, the country of origin principle may carry the day (as in the E-commerce directive and Edate Advertising), but then the public policy of the (more protective) forum may interfere to trump all. In terms of the semiotics of legal argument, this endless to-and-fro illustrates the phenomenon of “nesting” (Kennedy op cit, p357). Each argument carries with it its own oppositional twin. Chase a contrary principle out of the door in a hard case and inevitably, at some point in the course of implementation of its opposite, it will reappear through the window.

Of course, even if one settles for the inevitable impact of public policy as a matter of private international law, this is not the end of the story. Because the public policy exception itself will have to mirror the balance of fundamental rights to which the Member States are ultimately held (under the ECHR or, if Rome II is extended to cover such issues, under the Charter). Consider the case of unauthorized pictures of Caroline of Hannover, which had given rise to judicial division within Germany over the respective weight to be given to freedom of press and privacy of the royal couple. In 2004, the ECtHR observed (Grand Chamber, case of VON HANNOVER v. GERMANY (no. 2), Applications nos. 40660/08 and 60641/08):

§124.  … the national courts carefully balanced the right of the publishing companies to freedom of expression against the right of the applicants to respect for their private life. In doing so, they attached fundamental importance to the question whether the photos, considered in the light of the accompanying articles, had contributed to a debate of general interest. They also examined the circumstances in which the photos had been taken…§126.  In those circumstances, and having regard to the margin of appreciation enjoyed by the national courts when balancing competing interests, the Court concludes that the latter have not failed to comply with their positive obligations under Article 8 of the Convention. Accordingly, there has not been a violation of that provision.

Outside the German domestic context, whatever the legal basis supporting the competing interests here, it would be difficult to imagine a very different outcome.  My point, therefore,  is merely that given the conflict of values involved, the choice of conflict rule – national or European, general principle or special rule, bright-line or flexible, with foreseeability clause or public policy – is for a significant part, indifferent in the end. The forum will be bound ultimately to a proportionality test, whatever the starting point. And in the end, no doubt, the way in which it implements such a test will depend on its own view of the equities in a specific case. Human rights law indubitably places constraints on adjudication, but it is of course largely context-sensitive and does not mandate one right answer. The economy of any choice of law rule, along with its exceptions, special refinements or escape clauses,  is likely to reflect similar constraints – no more, no less.

It may be that the unfortunate saga of the Duchess of Cambridge’s topless pictures will begin and end on a purely jurisdictional note, with the interim measures already obtained.  These gave the claimants partial satisfaction, at least on French soil and for the existing digital versions of the pictures. At the time of writing, we do not know if further legal action is to be taken with a view to monetary compensation (nor where), and whether the issue of applicable law will arise. We know that the French provisional measures have not entirely prevented copies from circulating on the Internet, nor the medias in other countries (including of course some which would not be bound by Rome II in any event) from publishing or intending to publish them. This raises the additional and much discussed issue (or “can of worms” to borrow Andrew Dickinson’s term) of the adequate treatment of cross-border cyber-torts (whether or not linked to the invasion of personality rights). As apparent already in the Duchess of Cambridge case, cyber-privacy conflicts will usually comprise a significant jurisdictional dimension, frequently debated in terms of the lack of effectiveness of traditional measures (such as seizure of the unauthorized pictures), which are usually territorial in scope (not cross-border), and merely geographical (no effect in virtual space). The first deficiency might be overcome through injunctive relief, but the second requires specifically regulatory technology (as opposed to merely legal or normative: see for example, on the regulatory tools available, Roger Brownsword’s excellent Rights, Regulation and the Technological Revolution, Oxford, OUP, 2008). However, given the inevitable conflicts of values in all cases and the variable balance of equities as between any given instances, it is not necessarily desirable that any such measure should actually achieve universal water-tightness. Look at the Trafigura case, after all (a saga involving the silencing of journalists relating to a case involving the international dumping of toxic waste: see, on the extraordinary judicial journey of the Probo Koala, Revue critique DIP 2010.495). Was it not lucky that the super-injunction which purported to gag The Guardian newspaper to the extent allowed by the most sophisticated judicial technology, did not succeed in preventing an unauthorized twit (but that’s also a sore point in French politics at the moment!)?

Comments on this entry are closed.