Phone hacking and privacy torts

By Megan Richardson

Who before last week would have predicted there would be serious talk of a statutory privacy tort in Australia with politicians coming out openly in support of it?  But then who would have predicted a phone hacking scandal engulfing the Murdoch press?

The Australian’s senior legal writer Chris Merritt last weekend dismissed the connection saying we have criminal law to deal with phone hacking plus defamation and other laws to protect individuals, and questioning the need for a privacy tort – especially one as draconian in its treatment of the Australian media as that recommended by the Australian Law Reform Commission. What this discussion sidesteps, as much of the discussion I have read to date in the press, is that we already have common law protection of privacy fashioned through case law, which does or should constrain the media.

A problem, I think, is that our main source of common law protection goes by the antiquated name of ‘breach of confidence’. This gives the false impression of a confider and confidant. In reality the compass is far broader – and the doctrine is really one of misuse of confidential information, including information of a private character. In the defence papers case Commonwealth v John Fairfax Mason J referred to breach of confidence as a doctrine restraining ‘the publication of confidential information improperly or surreptitiously obtained’, citing Swinfen Eady LJ in Lord Ashburton v Pape (1913) 2 Ch 469. More recently, in the possum abattoir case Australian Broadcasting Corporation v Lenah Game Meats, Gleeson CJ quoted Laws J in Hellewell v Chief Constable of Derbyshire [1995] 1 WLR 804 at 807 as saying:

If someone with a telephoto lens were to take from a distance and with no authority a picture of another engaged in some private act, his subsequent disclosure of the photograph would, in my judgment, as surely amount to a breach of confidence as if he had found or stolen a letter or diary in which the act was recounted and proceeded to publish it. In such a case, the law would protect what might reasonably be called a right of privacy, although the name accorded to the cause of action would be breach of confidence. It is, of course, elementary that, in all such cases, a defence based on the public interest would be available.

Gleeson CJ agreed with that proposition, adding that to adapt it to the Australian context account should also be taken of the freedom of political communication which the High Court has held implicit in the democratic principles of the Australian Constitution. This suggests that the defence is particularly stringent where that implied freedom applies.

Lenah itself was a surreptitious filming case. Animal rights activists secretly entered the game meat abattoir’s property to film its possum slaughter processes then handed the film (through an intermediary) to the ABC who proposed to show on its 7.30 Report. Lenah sought an interlocutory injunction to stop this but did not claim breach of confidence, conceding rather that the information as to its animal slaughter methods was not confidential. Instead it argued the High Court should recognise a new tort of privacy to cover their case. Gleeson CJ said that breach of confidence would have been adequate to cover the case if ‘the activities filmed were private’. Even if so, the Chief Justice’s references to the public interest defence and constitutional freedom of communication suggests the ABC might have had a good defence. As Kirby J pointed out in his judgment, this was a government licensed abattoir and the public is entitled to know that the government is concerned to ensure that animals at the abattoir are being treated humanely (so far as an abattoir designed to kill animals can do so). The Australian government’s recent action over live meats exports shows it accepts this responsibility, and the ABC’s role in uncovering the problems there is worth noting and preserving.

We only need to imagine a slightly different fact situation to see Lenah as a strong authority on breach of confidence’s protection of privacy. Although some judges in the High Court questioned whether a corporation concerned about its public reputation was the best privacy claimant (Gummow and Hayne JJ especially), it was clear that the situation would have been different if the claimant had been an individual filmed or photographed while engaged in a private activity. For instance, Gleeson CJ said, ‘a film of a man in his underpants in his bedroom would ordinarily have the necessary quality of privacy to warrant the application of the law of breach of confidence’ – as would ‘information relating to health, personal relationships, or finances’. If the information was surreptitiously or otherwise improperly obtained, there is a good argument that its publication could be restrained or a remedy granted after the fact on the basis of breach of confidence, unless a public interest could be shown to justify the publication.

These are not just hypothetical scenarios that could never arise in Australia. In fact, the prospect of an improperly obtained video recording of a man in his underpants being aired on Australian television was very real in Donnelly v Amalgamated Television Services, where an interlocutory injunction was obtained (although, as often occurs in cases where other grounds are available, breach of confidence as such was not relied on). Lara Bingle’s objection to publication of the infamous shower picture in Woman’s Day is one example and in my view she had a potential claim that might have succeeded if she had chosen to pursue her action. Certainly, there are English cases where confidentiality claims against the media have succeeded involving weaker arguments of privacy and stronger arguments of free speech than were apparent in the Bingle scenario.

That many of those English cases have arisen in the wake of the Human Rights Act 1998 makes their authority in the Australian context more debatable. The Act brings into English law the European Convention on Human Rights, including the right to privacy in Article 8 along with the right to free speech in Article 10, and gives English courts the responsibility to develop its law in accordance with those rights. Perhaps it may be argued that the absence of an equivalent Bill of Rights at the Australian level means that privacy is not, or need not be, so highly valued here. But can this be said of private phone hacking? I would think many Australians would consider this a breach of their privacy.

And it would likely be a breach of confidence as well. Well before the Human Rights Act, the English case of Francome v Mirror Group Newspapers Ltd (1984) 2 ALL ER 408 concerned an illegal ‘bug’ placed on the jockey John Francome’s private telephone line. The tapes had been offered for sale to the Daily Mirror whose reporters approached Francome to confirm their authenticity. Francome and his wife promptly brought an action in breach of confidence seeking an interlocutory injunction to stop its publication of the transcripts, or extracts. The defendants denied liability and argued, alternatively, that publication was justified in the public interest as exposing Francome’s breaches of racing rules. Thus, they said, the balance of convenience lay in their favour, so the injunction should not be granted. However, the Court of Appeal held that the unlawful telephone tap was improper obtaining, the newspaper which had notice of the wrongdoing would also be liable as a third party for breach of confidence if it went ahead with its publication, and the public interest did not justify this since the tapes could have been given to the police or jockey club to deal with through official channels. Surely this case shows that in Australia as well as the United Kingdom unlawful telephone tapping by the media would be a prima facie breach of confidence, and that given the unlawfulness of the conduct the burden on the media to show the public interest supports its action is very high – although a court might allow an argument that there is good ground to suspect misconduct and the police could not be left to handle the investigation.

But to revert to my earlier point, the significance of breach of confidence in cases such as Francome is not widely known. In answer, then, to the question of whether there would be any advantage in a new statutory tort of privacy, I suggest transparency is one. If even The Australian’s senior legal reporter does not refer to breach of confidence what is the rest of Australia’s population to make of their legal rights in the (hopefully unlikely) scenario they find their telephones tapped for media reporting on some current story?

That said, there may be better ways to acknowledge the importance of freedom of speech and the media than in the Australian Law Reform Commission’s proposed statutory tort (where it is a matter to be ‘taken into account’ in a court’s determination of invasion of privacy). I was part of an expert group of the New South Wales Law Reform Commission whose proposed statutory cause of action for invasion of privacy tries to give more explicit account to freedom of speech and the media. The Victorian Law Reform Commission in its recent proposal for a cause of action for misuse of private information has gone further still, providing a full public interest defence. To me that seems the best approach to date. As Michael Kirby was quoted in an article in last weekend’s Australian, privacy may be a human right but so equally is freedom of speech and the media. Rather than giving either automatic precedence both should be acknowledged in any privacy cause of action and if need be they should be ‘reconciled’ in cases.

So, in the end, the judge’s central role in deciding privacy cases seems inescapable. In other words, we rely on the media to report freely but in cases where media seems too intrusive of individual privacy we should trust judges to exercise appropriate oversight.

Megan Richardson is a professor at the Melbourne Law School

An edited version of this piece has featured at

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