Legal aid

The England captain’s defeat in a privacy action has set a worrying precedent for high-profile footballers, says Nick McAleenan

Are footballers “role models”? This question invariably reappears when a player’s behaviour is called into question. Anecdotal experience tells us that on-field antics are frequently copied: the upturned Cantona collar, the (attempted) Ronaldo step-over, the Klinsmann dive, “words” with the ref. Equally, footballers’ off-field activities have always attracted public attention. Step forward Mario Balotelli, firework safety spokesman and Manchester City enigma.

It is relatively rare, however, that the courts express their view on the England football captain and his potential role-model status. However, that is what happened in the recent privacy court case of Rio Ferdinand v the Sunday Mirror (or its publisher to be more precise). Ferdinand’s claim concerned an article published without prior notice (hence no “injunction”) about his relationship with Carly Storey. With some inevitability, the relationship led to a “kiss and paid for telling” story.

The judge had to decide whether Ferdinand’s right to privacy outweighed the Sunday Mirror‘s right to freedom of expression. Having listened to the evidence (including an explanation of “the Ayia Napa incident”) and applied the appropriate legal tests, the judge decided that there was a public interest in publication of the article. This was due to comments made by Ferdinand in an interview given to the News of the World in 2006, in his autobiography and during other interviews, in which he had projected an “image” of himself as a “reformed family man” who had put his “wild” past behind him. The judge decided that there was a public interest in correcting a “false” image.

Fabio Capello told the world’s media that he had dismissed John Terry (after his own unhappy visit to the privacy courts) because the England captain was expected to be a role model for young fans. Capello replaced Terry with Ferdinand, whose past included a missed drug test and other misdemeanours. Ferdinand also admitted to the court that he had tried to sneak Storey into the team hotel against the rules set by the management.

Prior to Capello’s leadership reshuffle,  the FA chief executive at the time, Brian Barwick, made various prescient comments about the England captaincy. Barwick said: “One of the most important early decisions [Capello] will have to take will be to decide who is going to be his captain. There isn’t that degree of importance laid at the door of captains of other countries, but Fabio is aware of the importance of this decision. If you are an England player you are living out the dreams of thousands of kids and millions of people. And while you don’t want that weight of moral expectation weighing too heavily on anybody’s shoulders, it is part of your responsibility. They have to accept that off the field they are role models.”

While the court’s decision is certainly in line with Barwick’s sentiments, it is nevertheless surprising that Ferdinand’s appointment as England captain and his status as a role model were given such weight as to justify an intrusion into his private life. In the past, courts have been wary about describing high-profile names as “role models” and insist that people should not suffer a loss in privacy rights because they are public figures. A very high level of wrongdoing is usually required in order to “trigger” public interest. Did the judge attach too much weight to Ferdinand’s position as the England captain?

In a way, this case raises more questions than it answers. Where should the line be drawn between a footballer practising the dark art of spin and projecting a false image? You might also wonder how famous a footballer has to be before he qualifies for role-model status.

If Capello is right and the England captain must set a good example to young fans, it is debatable whether the revelation that their football idol has had a fling with, say, a lap dancer will lead them to switch their allegiances to a different role model – Joey Barton, anyone? Perhaps stories like this tell young fans that footballers can pretty much sleep with anyone they want.

Ferdinand has applied for permission to appeal the judgment. We will have to wait and see what the appeal judges make of the role-model debate.

From WSC 298 December 2011