The Movie Star and The Virgin Astronaut win: Rocknroll v News Group Newspapers Ltd [2013] EWHC

Edward Rocknroll
Edward Rocknroll

Edward Rocknroll is the nephew of Richard Branson, and used to be the head of marketing, promotion and astronaut experience at Virgin Galactic. That job ended in 2010, but while The Sun claimed that Rocknroll was a public figure, Justice Briggs stated: “the claimant was, so far as the evidence goes at this stage, no more than a not very conspicuous middle manager in his uncle’s private business empire.”

Last December though, Rocknroll married Kate Winslet, well known actress, and star of “Titanic”, a movie that was so long that you could go out for a 3-course meal in the middle and still miss nothing. Regardless, I look forward to the next epic starring Kate Rocknroll-Winslet.

Anyway, in 2010 Rocknroll was at a private party and you don’t have to be Einstein to see where this is going. His name is Rocknroll. He was at a party…. Yes that’s right,he was photographed half naked being a dill.

The photo was taken by Mr Pope (Could the names in this case possibly get any sillier?). The Pope put the half naked Rocknroll photo on his Facebook page. He had some privacy settings on it and the public could not see it, but his 1500 friends could. Mind you, they were probably all at the party.

Years later, it gets to the first week in January 2013 and The Sun, fresh from not having been invited to the Rocknroll Wedding of the Year, and no doubt reeling from the fact that they only found out about it days later, got hold of the photo and notified Rocknroll of its intention to publish, possibly underneath the caption “Its Still Rocknroll to Me”.

Rocknroll went to court to stop it. He relied on his right to privacy under Article 8 of the European Human Rights Convention.

The questions for the judge included these:

  1. The first stage is to ascertain whether the applicant has a reasonable expectation of privacy;
  2. The protection may be lost if the information is in the public domain;
  3. If Article 8 is engaged, then one must balance the right to privacy against the right of freedom of expression in Article 10;
  4. In balancing those rights, look at the contribution that the photos and articles would make to a debate of general interest.

The Sun ran all sorts of arguments. It claimed:

  • Rocknroll was a public figure in the social sphere, so had a limited right to privacy;
  • Rocknroll waived his right to privacy because he sold the story of his first marriage in 2009;
  • The photos came into the public domain, because they were on Facebook;
  • To suggest that harm could be caused to Kate Winslet’s two children was speculative.
The Happy Couple
The Happy Couple

The judgment was an emphatic win for Rocknroll. Yes, he did have a reasonable expectation of privacy. The photos were taken at a private party in a private place. Further, Rocknroll was not a public figure, and had not sought publicity for his wedding to Winslet.

In terms of the Facebook publication, no internet search of Rocknroll would have revealed the photos, nor even a simple search of The Pope’s wallpage or homepage. Therefore, Rocknroll could still maintain the right to privacy in the photos.

In balancing the right to privacy with the right to freedom of expression, the judge concluded there was nothing in the pictures that would contribute to public debate about matters of genuine public interest. While The Sun argued the fact that the pictures were on Facebook and that in itself might do so, that argument was disregarded and the judge concluded this [35]: “the defendant’s wish is simply to satisfy the interest of its readership in the private peccadilloes of the rich and famous or (in this case) of those associated with them, rather than to contribute, as watchdogs to public debate.”

The judge concluded that if the photos were published, there was a grave risk that Winslet’s two children would be ridiculed at school about their new step-father’s conduct, and that could seriously damage the caring relationship which Rocknroll is seeking to establish with them.

So the right to privacy prevailed. Rocknroll is King. And Kate’s children have nothing to worry about at school, not even the new hyphenated name…