Posted by Charlotte Ebbutt, Associate
Celebrity and Criminal Convictions: can existing law enable high profile individuals to ban reporting of their past?
Can a law designed to enable the rehabilitation of offenders be a new route for celebrities to improve their reputations? The recent actions of some media law firms on behalf of their clients shows a new approach citing the need for rehabilitation as a means of achieving a ban on reporting previous convictions.
In 2003 the presenter and popstar Cheryl Tweedy was convicted of assault occasioning actual bodily harm on an attendant at a club in Surrey. The allegations and later conviction were widely reported in the media.
Cheryl Tweedy is now taking legal action in an attempt to block further media reference to her conviction. Her lawyers, Carter Ruck, have written to media outlets demanding that they remove all current reporting of Ms Tweedy’s prior conviction and not refer to it further. Their argument is that the continued reference to a prior conviction constitutes a breach of the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act. There is concern amongst media lawyers that, if successful, the original intention of the Act could be subverted by celebrities to form an alternative route to asserting control over their public reputations.
Is the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act the new route to privacy?
The hitherto popular route for celebrities wanting to prevent publication facts damaging to their reputations was the super-injunction. With these injunctions being widely flouted on social media and in Parliament, high profile individuals are looking for a more effective route that will engender greater public sympathy if revealed. The Rehabilitation of Offenders Act was to render more minor convictions “spent” after a period of time, in the hope of facilitating employment and preventing further offending. Recent cases in the Supreme Court have shown a softening attitude to the balance between the need for public safety and the negative impact that a conviction for a minor offence such as stealing a sandwich can have on an individual’s employment prospects. Might that mean that the courts are more receptive to applications for a ban on further reference to past convictions in light of the potential for negative impact on everything from travel visas to record contracts? Most media lawyers think that this would be a step too far.
High profile individuals find it more difficult to establish a breach of their privacy because more of their lives are lived in the public gaze.
Whilst the claim by Sir Cliff Richard against the BBC confirmed that celebrities do have a right to a private life they have to establish that the relevant events took place in the private sphere of their lives. That argument is made more difficult when, in the case of Ms Tweedy, the offence was committed in a public place and she herself referred to it in her 2012 biography.
Despite receiving letters from Ms Tweedy’s solicitors media outlets have maintained their past and present coverage of the conviction. The new arguments are yet to be tested in court but are unlikely to prove successful.
Are there more effective ways of reducing reference to previous convictions?
High profile individuals wanting to reduce mention of previous convictions are more likely to achieve this by employing reputation management professionals tomanage their online profile. They would also benefit from having a series pre-prepared answers to questions raised about the event in media interviews which they could deliver comfortably in a relaxed manner. Not drawing attention to the conviction in their own publications would also help.
As public interest on a story wanes and Internet search results are improved significantly by those with the relevant skills the negative reputational impact will diminish. Money spent on taking the right advice is key to the success of reducing the impact of any negative issues on reputation.
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