MGN Limited, the media publisher, published a story in 2010 which suggested that Rio Ferdinand, the now former captain of the England football team, was in an extra-marital relationship. Ferdinand issued proceedings in the High Court, arguing that his right to privacy under article 8 of the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR) had been infringed. The Human Rights Act introduced the ECHR into legal force in the UK. The High Court also had to consider, if there had been an infringement of his right to privacy, whether that infringement was a legitimate exercise of the publisher’s competing rights under article 10 of the ECHR, which protects the right to freedom of expression. Ultimately, a balancing exercise between the two articles is often necessary.
The High Court has ruled that the information contained in the article published was, in principle, protected by article 8. However, the High Court also ruled that there was a public interest in the publication of the article, based on:
- an objective consideration of the public interest and what was significant to modern society, in particular that Ferdinand had occupied a high-profile position and the article published called into question his suitability for that position;
- previous case law which suggested that the position of captain of the England football team was a role from which a higher standard of behaviour from the occupant was needed. This was particularly true at a time when the previous captain of the England football team, John Terry, had lost the position to Ferdinand for an extra-marital affair with the partner of a teammate; and
- the fact that Ferdinand had, for some years, professed to be faithful to his wife – the article published had additional public interest if it proved that public claim to be false.
The High Court ruled that the article had not excessively infringed Ferdinand’s private life, and that the publisher’s right to freedom of expression outweighed Ferdinand’s right to privacy, with the justification based on public interest. The High Court has previously ruled in favour of people who have had their private lives exposed in many previous cases, so it is interesting to see a successful use of the public interest argument in practice.
It seems that Ferdinand’s own goal in seeking to project a particular public image may have cost him victory this time.