Julian Sheather on the case of Naomi Campbell

Naomi Campbell is more often associated with toppling heels and fashion-pack tantrums than fundamental clashes in human rights, but as we all know, in our celebrity-strewn culture, fame can be a lightning rod, drawing down great matters on otherwise unremarkable souls. While there may be more moving sights than the gyrations of exposure-hungry models seeking to be rescued from the limelight they have craved, Ms Campbell’s legal spat with the UK’s Mirror Group shed light on a fascinating clash of interests, a clash of interests that permeates contemporary life: exactly where does the limit between a private life and the public interest lie?

For those of you who don’t recall the case, the photogenic Ms Campbell was photographed attending a Narcotics Anonymous clinic seeking treatment for drug addiction, despite vociferously and publicly stating that she was not addicted to drugs. Outraged by the photographs, she took the offending paper to court, claiming breach of confidence. It wound up in the House of Lords where, by a 3:2 majority the case was found in her favour. Lord Hope, summing up, had reference to the jurisprudence of the European Court of Human Rights. At the heart of the case lay a clash between article 8(1) of the Convention, the right to respect for private life, and article 10(1) the right to freedom of expression. The question for the court was, in the words of Lord Hope, “whether the publication of the material pursues a legitimate aim and whether the benefits that will be achieved by its publication are proportionate to the harm that may be done by the interference with the right to privacy.” The fact that the breach of confidence related to sensitive health information, and that the speech whose freedoms were being trumpeted was tabloid gossip, leant in the fashion model’s favour.

The clash between privacy – or confidentiality – and the public interest is not restricted to the flash-lit world of the glitterati. Just such a debate is currently rippling through the less glamorous world of health care. Although the importance of a respect for medical confidentiality is universally acknowledged, legal and moral doubt exists about the proper limits of such a respect: at what point, for example should a respect for confidentiality yield to a legitimate public interest in access to data for research? Where should such a limit lie, and how should it be set? Should the undoubted public goods stemming from research qualify our respect for confidentiality? At what point, and to what extent, should article 8(1) the right to a private life, yield to the exception given under 8(2) “except…for the protection of health or morals.”? Given the uncertainty – and the enormous interests at stake – is it time for a wider debate?

Julian Sheather is ethics manager, BMA. The views he expresses in his blog posts are entirely his own.