Hello! to pay £1m over Douglas wedding shots
Saturday November 8, 2003
The celebrity magazine Hello! was yesterday ordered to pay more than £1m to the rival glossy OK! for publishing snatched paparazzi pictures of the wedding of Catherine Zeta-Jones and Michael Douglas.
The award for commercial damages because of lost sales, made by the high court in London, dwarfed the payments of £3,750 granted to each of the Hollywood actors for their hurt feelings.
The total bill for the trial, which Hello! may eventually have to pay, could be £5m. A further two-day hearing on the issue of costs has yet to be arranged.
The case, brought as a breach of commercial confidence, has been closely followed by media and lawyers monitoring the courts' approach to broader questions of invasion of privacy.
Mr Justice Lindsay said he "failed to understand" several of the Douglases claims. He almost cut in half the couple's estimate of the additional costs they had incurred and awarded them a "nominal" £50 each under the Data Protection Act. Altogether, the couple received a total of £14,600.
At an earlier hearing Alastair Wilson QC told the judge the Douglases were entitled to damages not only for the damage caused to their commercial rights but also for the distress they had suffered.
The judge agreed that any wedding was an exceptional event for bride and groom, and just because Douglas, 58, and Zeta-Jones, 33, were public figures it did not lessen their right to complain about intrusion. There was no doubt the couple had suffered distress, the judge added.
Lawyers acting for the couple yesterday welcomed the award as "a matter of principle" and said the actors would donate their damages to a charitable cause, the Family Learning Centre.
Most of yesterday's judgment, however, focused on the estimated loss incurred by OK!, which had agreed an exclusive contract with the Douglases to cover the ceremony at the Plaza Hotel in New York in November 2000.
The magazine's exclusive rights were undermined when an unauthorised photographer, Rupert Thorpe, bluffed his way into the reception and secretly took 15 or so pictures.
The snaps were subsequently sold to the magazine's rival Hello! for £125,000 and appeared on the same day as the edition of OK! which carried the official wedding photographs.
Handing down his judgment, Mr Justice Lindsay said: "Looking at this substantial award in a general way, I would not regard, given the resources of Hello!, as of a size that is likely materially to stifle free expression."
Outside the court Hello! admitted it was happy the awards to Douglas and Zeta-Jones proved the magazine had no intention of damaging the couple. It was, however, "disappointed at the awarding of £1,033,756" to its competitor.
"This is not and never was a privacy case," said Sally Cartwright, the magazine's publishing director.
"It is alarming to all print media that the financial consequences to Hello! of following normal practice of the UK media, namely running a spoiler, should be so great.
"The press as a whole are now on notice that whenever one media organisation has an exclusive, all others are at risk if they cover the same ground. This is potentially not only anti-competitive but also a restraint of freedom of expression."
A spokeswoman for OK!, which is owned by the Daily Express and soft porn publisher Richard Desmond, said: "Mr Justice Lindsay accepted the OK! claim for massive commercial losses because the publication by Hello! of the unauthorised pictures forced OK! to publish the Douglas wedding feature prematurely and very seriously damaged sales."
One media lawyer, Mark Batemen, last night suggested the small payments to the couple may have reflected that it was chiefly a commercial case or that the Douglases did not need the money. He said the judgment would not have much impact on questions of invasion of privacy since it did not open up an area in which celebrities could expect vast amounts of money.
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