Couderc and Hachette Filipacchi Associés v. France: A New “Respect” for Private Life?
On 10 November 2015, the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) handed down judgment in the case of Couderc and Hachette Filipacchi Associés v France. The case concerned an article published in the applicants’ magazine in which a woman (Ms. Coste) alleged that Prince Albert of Monaco was her son’s father. The interview with Ms. Coste described her intimate relationship with the Prince and the manner in which he had reacted to the news of the pregnancy.
Prince Albert successfully brought proceedings in the French courts invoking Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), which provides that ‘everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence.’ In their appeal before the ECtHR, the applicants argued that the French courts’ judgments against them amounted to an unjustified interference in the exercise of their right to freedom of expression under Article 10 of the ECHR. This provides that everyone has the right to ‘hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by a public authority and regardless of frontiers’.
The Grand Chamber distinguished between publications concerning public individuals’ private lives that were intended purely to satisfy the curiosity of a certain readership, and those which, in addition, relate to a subject of general importance. It held that, in this case, the ‘purely family and private interest’ represented by the son’s descent was ‘supplemented by a public aspect, related to the social and legal structure of kinship’ (§ 107). The article was therefore not intended merely to satisfy the public’s curiosity. In light of the specific features of the Principality of Monaco, namely ‘the union between the Prince and the national community’ which forms the basis of the monarchy, there was an undeniable public interest in the existence of a son of the Prince, at least for the subjects of the Principality, because ‘the child’s birth was not without possible dynastic and financial implications’ (§ 108).
The Court also noted that the Prince was ‘undeniably a prominent public figure’ (§ 124) and criticised the French courts for failing to consider the extent to which this prominence could affect the protection of private life afforded under the ECHR. ‘[G]iven the hereditary nature of the Prince’s functions’ as head of state, the magazine article’s core issue — the child’s existence — fell beyond the private sphere, and was therefore beyond the private-life protection in Article 8.
As for the applicants’ challenge under Article 10, the Court concluded that there had been a violation. In this regard, and in addition to the reasoning outlined above, the Court considered that the information and photographs contained in the article were provided voluntarily by the mother and their veracity was not disputed (§§ 134–135); that ‘sensationalist spin’ falls within journalistic freedom (§ 138); that in any case the article was not sensationalised (§141); and that it formed part of a wider context of international media coverage of the issue (§ 150).
The judgment’s focus (at § 127) on Ms Coste’s competing freedom to communicate aspects of her private life is interesting. The Court did not think she was ‘bound to silence’ on these issues. But it is not clear whether the Court considered this an aspect of Ms Coste’s own Article 10 right to freedom of expression (as § 129 would suggest), or, because of the express reference to her private life, an interesting new aspect of the Article 8 right to respect for private life. In similar cases, should the definition of ‘respect’ in Article 8 include the ability to share aspects of one’s private life? Although Ms Coste herself was not a party in this case, one wonders whether this judgment might introduce a new consideration in the context of similar ‘relationship’ publications, where one subject’s right to ‘respect’ demands concealment, but the other’s demands the right to share details.