Media outlets in Canada should practise civility and self-regulation in respecting the privacy rights of Prince Harry and Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex, says British Columbia’s privacy commissioner.
Michael McEvoy said Wednesday media freedoms in Canada are vast and paramount to ensure a free press, but the couple’s privacy should be a consideration as they take up residence near Victoria.
Lawyers for the Duke and Duchess of Sussex reportedly sent a letter to the British press threatening legal action after Meghan and her young son Archie were photographed walking in a public park north of Victoria.
“I would just say as B.C.’s privacy commissioner that I think it behooves us all to exercise some kind of self-regulation, some kind of civility to respect the rights of others to go about their daily business without being surveilled,” he said in an interview.
McEvoy said individuals, regardless of their celebrity status, deserve some privacy rights.
B.C.’s Personal Information Protection Act restricts private organizations, including corporations, unions and political parties, from disclosing the personal information of individuals, but the act does not apply to the collection of information for a “journalistic or literary purpose,” McEvoy said.
B.C.’s Privacy Act allows individuals who believe their privacy has been invaded to go to court, but the law has not been well tested, he said.
“It’s an open question whether that legislation would provide a remedy to royals or anybody else who wants to exercise it,” said McEvoy.
Vancouver media lawyer Dan Burnett said the couple’s expectation of privacy in Canada would depend on the individual situation if they decided to take the matter to court. He said claims by media that photos were taken in a public place may not be enough.
“It’s very situational, and too simplistic to say ‘It’s a public place,’ ” he said. “Factors, such as young children and surreptitious photography, tend to suggest an expectation of privacy.”
Burnett said court claims in B.C. for breach of privacy are based on whether reasonable expectations of privacy are violated.
Alfred Hermida, a journalism professor at the University of British Columbia who worked as a reporter in the U.K., said the royal couple are hot news and they should expect to be making headlines when they step out in public.
“It’s really complex, really complicated because the law is not clear cut here,” he said. “Press coverage of this is this thin line of what is in the public interest and whether you’ve breached that just to have photos that are interesting to the public and will sell newspapers or get clicks.”
Hermida said there is a long tradition in the U.K. of media of investigating and exposing the private lives of well-known people, but that approach is not as prevalent in Canada.
“Taking a walk in the park and having their picture plastered across the world’s media, is that an intrusion that would be highly offensive to a reasonable person?” he said. “It might be to a Canadian, might not be to somebody in the U.K., where this is more common.”
Hermida said he finds it difficult to understand that Harry and Meghan believed their recent decision to step back from the Royal Family and move part-time to Canada would not place them in the media spotlight.
“In some ways I would argue by making the decision to step back formally as royals they’ve created more interest in what they are doing,” he said. “There’s the expectation of reasonable interest in them in how they chart a new life in Canada. We’re looking at royals, post royalty, and this is new.”