UK media gagged by privacy injunction ‘farce’
A celebrity scandal has already been reported in the USA and Scotland including names — banned from publication in England and Wales. Do the famous deserve a legal right to privacy?
First, a couple approached the Sun on Sunday. They offered to tell a salacious story about their affair with a well-known celebrity’s spouse. Alarmed, that celebrity applied for a privacy injunction. Before long, English courts had made it illegal to name the celebrities involved.
That might have been the end of it — except the law only applied in England and Wales. For months the celebrity couple were on a ‘knife edge’, hoping that their secrets would stay buried. But last week, it fell apart: a US publication printed the details in full. English newspapers were outraged that they could not do the same.
Tensions rose this weekend when a Scottish paper published the names of those involved. It insisted that while it ‘couldn’t care less’ about the story itself, it did care about ‘free speech, a free press and very wealthy people spending huge sums of money stopping stories they do not like.’ Yet it was still careful not to publish the names online, in case English and Welsh readers saw it.
The Daily Mail has called the injunction law ‘an ass’, while the Sun is furious that the story could be read by millions of people on social media or in other countries — ‘but we STILL can’t tell’.
This is not the first time that injunctions have been criticised. In 2011 John Hemming, then a liberal democrat MP, caused a row by naming the footballer Ryan Giggs as the man behind a super-injunction which covered up his affair.
Although Hemming took advantage of parliamentary privilege, a rule that protects MPs from being charged for anything they say inside parliament, yesterday MPs were banned from pulling the same trick. All the same, MPs and media alike have criticised the law as being a ‘farce’ in the digital age.
‘King Canute showed he could not hold back the waves,’ Hemming said last week. ‘He was making a point that our judges would be wise to learn from.’
The celebrities involved have argued that their children should be protected from the public’s unwanted attention. The EU guarantees a right to a private family life — and in this case, the judge decided that this was more important than the public’s right to free speech. For this reason, the couple’s sex life should remain private; it is nobody’s business but their own.
But this is a ludicrous decision when anyone with a Twitter account can discover their identities in 30 seconds, say the silenced reporters. Free speech is the most important freedom any of us have — it is the bedrock of all our other freedoms. Whether you care about the celebrity gossip or not, suppressing it in the digital age is not only futile, it’s immoral. MPs should scrap injunction laws and let journalists do their job.
- Was the celebrity right to protect his family’s privacy — even if it meant suppressing free speech?
- Is there ever a justification for keeping something secret?
- In pairs, discuss what you did last weekend without mentioning any names, places, or specific actions. It may be harder than you think!
- Class debate: This house believes that there is nothing more important than free speech.
Some People Say...
“Privacy is overrated.”
What do you think?
Q & A
- So a celebrity had an affair. Who cares?
- Although the story was once a rather trivial account of celebrity sex, it has evolved into something much bigger: a debate about free speech and privacy. Those wishing to publicise the details argue that the couple, who present themselves as happily married, are using the law to manipulate their public image, and that hypocrisy should be exposed. Children should not be used as an excuse, they argue — it sets a worrying precedent that anyone can silence the media as long as they have a family.
- Am I allowed to name the celebrity online?
- Not if you live in England or Wales. Although it is unlikely you would be prosecuted, the law treats anything published on social media the same as if it was published in a newspaper. It is simply not worth the risk.
- A court order. In this case, the celebrities used an ‘anonymised injunction’ which prevents names from being published. It differs from a ‘super-injunction’, which prevents the injunction itself from being reported on; however, this type has become increasingly rare since 2011.
- Ryan Giggs
- The former Manchester United player used a super-injunction to suppress a story of his affair with the model Imogen Thomas. When his name was leaked on Twitter, it sparked a controversy over the use of injunctions, and several other celebrities were exposed.
- Parliamentary privilege
- Immunity from prosecution for members of the Houses of Commons and Lords, particularly when it comes to freedom of speech.
- King Canute
- An 11th-century king who is famous for ordering the tide not to come in. He failed, of course — and criticised his courtiers for flattering him too much, when only God can be all-powerful.
- This is part of the European Convention on Human Rights. However, the convention also gives the right to freedom of expression. Balancing these two can be tricky in matters of free speech.