Reference: Application No. 73579/10
Court: European Court of Human Rights (Fourth Section)
Date of Judgment: 14 Jan 2014
The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has upheld the decision of the Finnish Supreme Court that a biography, featuring details about the defendants’ past relationship with the ex-Prime Minister, Matti Vanhanen, was a breach of privacy.
The book, ostensibly about Susan Ruusunen’s own experience of dating the Prime Minister whilst he was still in office, also detailed intimate details of their sex life and intimate moments of the relationship, such as his children’s behaviour and feelings. It was these excerpts of the book that the Finnish Supreme Court ruled to have been an invasion of the Prime Minister’s privacy.
The book was originally released in 2007 and resulted in criminal charges brought by the Finnish public prosecutor for invasion of the Prime Minister’s privacy. The District Court dismissed the charges. However, on appeal the court convicted Ms Ruusunen for breach of privacy and fined her €300 as well as deprivation of the proceeds earned from sale of the book. On appeal at the Finnish Supreme Court in 2010 the appeal judgment was upheld but the court overturned the requirement to the proceeds earned from the book.
The Supreme Court ruling stated that though the majority of the book did qualify within the realm of public interest, those excerpts which detailed the intimate occasions of their relationship were an unacceptable invasion of Vanhanen’s private life.
At the ECHR, it was argued that the above ruling was a violation of the defendant’s freedom of expression. Ms Ruusunen in particular argued that the book detailed her private life which she had a right to do, even if as a result it also featured Mr Vanhanen’s as a by-product of this.
The ECHR considered the applicable criteria as developed in the cases of Von Hannover and Axel Springer AG. The two cases identified criteria to consider when determining the appropriate balance between freedom of expression for Ms Ruusunen and right to respect of Mr Vanhanen’s privacy.
The ECHR ruled that the Finnish courts had carried out all such requirements. The court had determined that the pertinent factors to consider were that, as a public figure Mr Vanhanen, must endure a greater degree of public scrutiny. The court had also correctly noted that much of the information published in the book was already known and had been previous topics of public discussion. However, information about the feelings of Mr Vanhanen’s children or the couple’s sex life was not previously known in the public sphere and it was this that was deemed to be an illegal invasion of his privacy.
By specifically identifying those extracts and references which breached the right to privacy the ECHR ruled that the Finnish Supreme Court had not unlawfully restricted Ms Ruusunen’s right to freedom of expression.
In consideration of the recently disclosed ‘revelations’ regarding Francois Hollande’s and his alleged affair with Julie Gayet, who has subsequently suggested that she may bring proceedings against the publisher Closer for their articles, the above ruling may prove critical. This ruling suggests that though public figures must acknowledge that they must sacrifice a degree of intrusions of their privacy, there will be limitations to the degree of what is considered an acceptable intrusion. Even, it seems, for our Head of States.