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Chasing Ali

By Steven | February 15, 2010

The latest development in the Alison Mau saga reads like a media law exam question.

On Breakfast TV she took a swipe at Woman’s Day, saying its “paparazzi photographer has been stalking me, my children and my friends for a month now, quite possibly more, following me to the supermarket, the kids’ tennis and touch rugby, to and from school.”

She pointed to two photos, one of her carrying some take-out hot drinks, which she said was taken last month, and others taken last week.”In my mind, that’s a gross intrusion of our privacy and frankly, more than a little creepy.”

She went on: “Just give me an idea when the dogs will be called off and me, my friends and my family can go about our business without having creepy guys in Corolla station wagons following us around?”

She invited viewers to send in their comments on this behaviour, either to Breakfast, or by emailing the Woman’s Day editor, whose email was printed onscreen.

Where to start? I confess I’m not a regular viewer of Breakfast, so I haven’t tuned into this discussion segment on gossip magazines before. Do the presenters commonly express outrage at the excesses of the gossip magazines when they intrude on the lives of other celebrities? I’m sure they wouldn’t stoop to showing us other papped photos on that segment, anyway.

Still, the papping does sound creepy. (This is because papping is creepy). Was it also harassment? It does seem to fall under the definition in the Harassment Act (you need to read secs 3 and 4). Mau would need to show a pattern of conduct involving at least two “specified acts” in a 12 month period. Specified acts include following and watching.

It’s not harassment if it’s done for a “lawful purpose”. It’s not clear how that defence might apply. “I wanted to show her I loved her” is an entirely lawful purpose, but it is unlikely to avail a stalker who tails an ex for a week. Likewise, there must come a point at which gathering information for a magazine (would they try to dress it up as “news?”) ceases to be a lawful purpose.

Mau could therefore apply for a restraining order, if she could show that the she reasonably felt distress about the harassing behaviour and that an order was necessary and proportionate to tackle it. Seems at least arguable. She’d have to identify the photographer, though, and if she wanted to include the magazine, she’d have to prove their involvement too.

Is it churlish to note that journalists from her own station are sometimes accused of harassing people, too, and not always with much of a public interest justification?

We should bear in mind that Woman’s Day says the photos it used were taken over a 24-hour-period, and the magazine had nothing to do with whoever was following Mau around. (Did their photographer drive a corolla station wagon? They didn’t say).

So… Mau falsely accused Sarah Henry and Catherine Mitford of hiring someone to stalk her for a period of weeks. That looks like… defamation. (It’s also probably a breach of broadcasting standards requiring accuracy and fairness).

Unless Mau’s right and the magazine did authorise or encourage this photographer, in which case the editor has falsely accused Mau of falsely accusing them of stalking her. That looks like… defamation too! (What’s more, the harassment itself may warrant a complaint to the Press Council against the magazine.)

Either way, there’s another issue about whether it’s fair for Mau to airĀ  her personal grievance against the magazine on national TV. The BSA has previously found that the use of the airwaves to vent a private complaint can be a breach of the fairness standard.

PS Let me go on the record with who think it was poor form for the Herald on Sunday to out her in the first placeĀ  (assuming it’s true). And putting on my media lawyer hat again, she may have a right to sue for breach of privacy. This may depend on how many people knew, though a privacy action can still succeed if a limited group of people were already in the know. Of course, a Press Council complaint is another option here too.

Topics: Broadcasting Standards Authority, Defamation, Harassment Act, Press Council, Privacy tort | 8,702 Comments »