Conor McGregor privacy case could make for tough legal battle

Ireland has strong privacy laws but famous people can face fight to assert their rights

A decision by mixed martial arts champion Conor McGregor and his partner, Dee Devlin, to take a case against the Sunday World claiming breach of privacy will make for an interesting case if it goes to a hearing.

Irish law is strong and well-developed in relation to the protection of privacy, but also recognises the public interest in having a free press.

As with so many areas of the law, the issue comes down to balancing one set of rights against another.

In the case of McGregor, the huge amount of publicity he has received, especially since he became the holder of the Ultimate Fighting Championship featherweight title, and the fact he and Devlin voluntarily co-operated with much of it, would make a case all the more interesting.

Expensive cars

Last month the Sunday World published a photograph and a related article, in the wake of McGregor's 13-second title fight in Las Vegas, about the fighter's Co Kildare home and the expensive cars that could be seen in the driveway. Proceedings against the newspaper were lodged last week.

Provisions in the Constitution, the European Convention on Human Rights, and common law generally, combine to create strong grounds for those who wish to argue in an Irish court that they have a right to protect their privacy. This is particularly true in relation to the home.

However, the courts also have a tradition of recognising the strong public interest in publication. And so, in cases such as RTÉ’s secret videoing of scenes from the Leas Cross nursing home, for example, the invasion of privacy involved in the use of secret cameras was trumped by the public interest argument that highlighting the treatment of the elderly residents was more important.

Rulings of the courts show that people can have a right to privacy even when the complaint involves a photograph of something that happened in public.

For example, GAA footballer Richard Sinnott complained successfully about publication by the Carlow Nationalist of a photograph of him playing football because his private parts were visible at the edge of his shorts at the moment the picture was taken.

According to Trinity College Dublin associate professor of law Eoin O’Dell, the fact that a celebrity might have invited the media at one stage to publicise aspects of his or her life similar to those over which he or she later seeks to assert privacy rights, is something a court takes into account when balancing privacy interests against the public interest in publication.

Public interest

He says it should be remembered that “celebrities have rights too”, as well as the fact that what might be of interest to the public is not the same as what is in the public interest.

In general, privacy cases tend to be taken prior to publication, in an effort to stop publication occurring. They are sometimes accompanied by applications for so-called superinjunctions, which prevent the public being told about the court issuing the order preventing publication. O’Dell says it is not believed that the Irish courts have ever issued such a superinjunction.

In the McGregor case, it appears the couple may be seeking to have the Sunday World take the article and photograph down from the internet.

Attempts to contact the couple met with no success.

In general, the damages awarded by the Irish, and the UK, courts in privacy cases have been relatively modest.

In the Sinnott case, damages were €11,000.

In 2008, when the Formula One boss Max Mosley took a successful privacy action against the News of the World arising from its publication of pictures and video of him with a number of prostitutes, he got damages of just £60,000.