A European court ruling handed down Thursday against a celebrity couple in Norway may boost press freedom around the continent and in Scandinavia. Popular Norwegian musician Lars Lillo-Stenberg and his actress wife Andrine Sæther suffered a bitter loss at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, which refused to agree that it was wrong for a Norwegian magazine to publish photos of their wedding in 2005 without their consent.
The case has dragged through the courts for years, after Lillo-Stenberg and Sæther all but turned it into a crusade for celebrities’ right to privacy. Even though they and other entertainers often seek media publicity to further their careers, they wanted to maintain control over any media coverage of their outdoor wedding on a public beach.
Several media outlets went along with the couple’s demand that no photos be published of their wedding ceremony, but not Oslo-based magazine Se og Hør. Instead, the magazine that specializes in celebrity coverage took photos of the couple’s wedding on the island of Tjøme from a distance and then published them. Lillo-Stenberg and Sæther were furious that the magazine would ignore their ban on photos, maintaining that their wedding was a private affair.
The couple sued the magazine and won in two lower courts until the Norwegian Supreme Court sided in favour of Se og Hør. Unwilling to accept the high court’s verdict, the couple then filed suit against the Norwegian state at the European court in Strasbourg. On Thursday, their eight-year battle came to an end.
‘Duty to impart information…’
The court stressed that it has “repeatedly emphasised the essential role played by the press in a democratic socity. Although the press must not overstep certain bounds, regarding in particular protection of the reputation and rights of others, its duty is nevertheless to impart … information and ideas on all matters of public interest.”
The court clearly felt that the couple’s wedding was of public interest, going on to state that “Not only does the press have the task of imparting such information and ideas, the public also has a right to receive them. Were it otherwise, the press would be unable to play its vital role of ‘public watchdog.'”
‘Victory for all media’
The editor of Se og Hør, which also has faced legal and official complaints from other celebrities including members of the royal family over photos published without their consent, was predictably delighted by the ruling from Strasbourg.
“The ruling isn’t only about Se og Hør, it’s about working conditions for media,” editor Ellen Arnstad told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK). “Not least, it’s about freedom of expression and information. That’s what delights me as an editor.”
Arnstad, who wasn’t the defendant in the Strasbourg suit, added that the ruling shows the magazine did nothing wrong in published the couple’s wedding photos. A ruling against the media’s right to publish such photos, Arnstad said, “would have given the media major challenges regarding coverage of events in public places.”
She noted that she understands the case has been “difficult” for the couple and she now hopes it’s finally over. According to Lillo-Stenberg, it is.
‘Did what we could’
“Andrine and I of course hoped our view would prevail, but we’ve been uncertain all along,” he told Journalisten, the professional publication for members of Norway’s national journalists’ organization. “Now we just have to accept the ruling and put the whole case behind us. We have lived with this long enough now.”
Lillo-Stenberg, best known for leading the legendary rock band de Lillos, said he “chose to be proud that we did what we could to fight for the right for privacy. At the same time, I see that the world has changed regarding photos, which now everyone can take on their mobile phones. It’s clear that the rules have changed.” He added, though, that he still believes there’s “a big difference between what’s of public interest and what’s only of public curiosity.”
Se og Hør has also been challenged by Norway’s Royal Palace over its publication of photos showing Crown Princess Mette-Marit and Crown Prince Haakon and their family on vacation at St Barts, a public beach known for attracting celebrities in the Caribbean. The royals also complained the photos undermined their privacy, as have other royals around Europe when photos of them in private situations have been published. Thursday’s Strasbourg ruling may make it tougher for royals and other celebrities to object when the media doesn’t go along with their rules.