Media Intrusion

With press intrusion into private lives a problem for many within football, We examine the issue – and suggest how players can combat unreasonable behaviour by journalists and photographers.


Following the shocking revelations surrounding the News Of The World and the resulting Leveson Inquiry that has – somewhat ironically – dominated the headlines, it’s fair to say that the behaviour of the press has never been more under the spotlight.

It would also be fair to state that media intrusion into the lives of current and former footballers continues to be a real source of anger for many within the game – especially when that intrusion can sometimes have profoundly damaging consequences. At the Leveson Inquiry itself, former Blackburn captain Garry Flitcroft spoke of how press reporting on his private life may have led to his father’s suicide.

Concern over the issue is nothing new. Back in 2010 Chelsea boss Carlo Ancelotti attacked the media for its fixation on what players were up to off-the-pitch, while the presence of hungry tabloid reporters and paparazzi has become a daily fixture in the lives of many top-flight footballers. As someone who has witnessed the stalking of players first-hand, and heard accounts of photographers waiting at school gates to snap players when they arrive to pick up their kids, it’s clear that the behaviour of some journalists can be unreasonably intrusive.

But what does the law have to say on the matter?

Although there is no express right to privacy under English law and therefore no civil action available there are a number of rights that do relate to privacy. The majority of privacy cases are fought at the pre-publication stage. The player usually finds out about a threatened publication and seeks an injunction to prevent it. The injunction can also restrict reporting of the court proceedings with players commonly anonymised. If publication of the information has taken place, the player can seek damages retrospectively through the courts. The judge will have to conduct a balancing exercise to decide whether Article 8 (right to respect for private and family life) or Article 10 (right to freedom of expression) will prevail.

The media will often quote Article 10 of the Human Rights Act 1998, which provides right to freedom of expression, that does not mean they can automatically do and print what they like when it comes to well-known sports stars, and not face the possibility of real consequences.

Conversely Article 8 of the Human Rights Act provides individuals with a right to respect for private and family life, and a crucial test for breach of privacy is generally that of whether publication is in the ‘public interest’. What this means is that the breach of privacy or publication of personal activity should be of legitimate importance to the general public.

The cases of John Terry and Rio Ferdinand were deemed to be of sufficient public interest as the media were correcting a false image promoted by the players. An additional factor both players faced at the time of the allegations was that they were both captains of their country at their respective times. The acceptance of the armband brings with it an expectation of a higher standard of conduct as the public’s perception is that they immediately become a high class role model.

If the story is seen to contravene an image which the individual widely trades upon for publicity and profit, then publication is generally upheld as in the public interest. But just because someone is a well-known figure, it does not mean that details of their private life are in the public interest. Former F1 president Max Mosley successfully sued the News Of The World after they ran a revealing story on his sex life, and received significant compensation as a result.

Footballers need to be careful about their relationship with the media as the line between public and private life can easily get blurred. If a footballer answers purely football related questions in interviews and does not open up their private life to the likes of Hello and Ok magazine then their privacy deserves to get a much higher level of respect from the media. Players need to be wary about discussing injuries in press conferences for example, as a seemingly innocent question about a players rehabilitation can open that player up to an intrusion into their private life.

Injunctions to prevent publication of intrusive stories can be obtained but, as widespread contravening of a so-called super-injunction in the case of Ryan Giggs proved, the power of the internet means that keeping the cat in the bag is often impossible.

The Ryan Giggs super-injunction saga firmly established that celebrities can no longer pay their way out of trouble. Stars who seek and welcome publicity which demonstrates their private life in a positive manner when they are hitting the back of the net should not have a leg to stand on when they wish to complain about an invasion of their privacy which shows them in an unfavourable light. The relationship with the media is very much a double edged sword for many top-level footballers in that respect

For the reasons discussed, complaining to the Press Complaints Commission and taking legal action for Breach of Privacy is perhaps the best current course open to footballers who feel the press have stepped over the line. If tougher legislation is implemented in the wake of Leveson, however, then perhaps the press will not be as quick to publish and be damned in future.

Robbie Savage – Sports Consultant