Believe it or not, I believe in personal privacy. I have more or less sacrificed mine by choice through my writing on this blog and through my use of twitter but for most of my life I tried very hard to keep most things about me private; certainly away from the internet. I explained in my blog post “You have zero privacy anyway, get over it” why I think that we are voluntarily giving up much of our right to keep our lives private but I still believe that we must have the option of privacy if we want it.
I also have much contempt for tabloid newspapers and celebrity gossip magazines that do all they can to expose the private lives of the rich and famous and the not-so-famous if they happen to have appeared in public life for a few minutes. While many desperate wannabe celebs may give their information out to be published voluntarily, many more do not and yet still find their image plastered all over the media and people everywhere discussing the intimate details of their sex lives or of their family. I find it particularly vile when tabloids discuss the private lives of ordinary people with the intention of destroying them or simply of making a titilating story. These stories often expose and condemn actions of ordinary civil servants, teachers and other underpaid hard-working people, destroying their lives just to create a tiny bit of outrage for their readers. (And that not even deserved – why shouldn’t civil servants and teachers enjoy the same right to go to the pub and drink that every other person enjoys?)
On the other hand, I do think it is right that the press expose relevant information when politicians and people with responsibility or power do something that compromises their job. That probably doesn’t include who they sleep with unless they committed a crime in doing so or endangered their impartiality.
How, then, do we call an end to this voyeuristic exposure of people’s lives in tabloids and gossip magazines while still allowing the proper reporting of things that actually affect us? Those who can afford it have turned to the courts and to injunctions. Injunctions have been used to order the media not to report on something that they have discovered such as a celebrity sex scandal. More recently we have had super injunctions which have prevented the press from even reporting that they are subject to an injunction. Then we have hyper-injunctions, where people subject to them are forbidden from talking to their own lawyer or even to their MP. John Hemming MP took great exception to this when he discovered it, and he used “Parliamentary Privilege” to expose an injunction by discussing it in parliament. Parliamentary privilege allows MPs to discuss anything they wish in a parliamentary debate without fear of prosecution. This of course is necessary for the law to function properly, however everything that is discussed in parliament is also recorded in Hansard and broadcast on BBC Parliament and therefore is in full public view. Once discussed in parliament the newspapers and tabloids felt free to discuss the injunction although judges have questioned whether that was legal or not.
In many cases the injunction has become the story and the injunction has fuelled the story and given publicity to the scandal behind it. I have heard from people over and over again that they had never heard of the people that were the subject of an injunction, but that now they had because of the injunction.
The important point is that once exposed, whether through discussion in parliament or through simple gossip and leaks, the internet and social media can get hold of the details and repeat them endlessly. Some of those repeating the information are not even in the UK and are not subject to UK courts so there is nothing that the courts can do to prevent this. In the most recent case twitter has been full of endless tweets and retweets about a certain footballer and Imogen Thomas, fuelled by outrage at his injunction. Some 30,000 people are estimated to have repeated this information. Clearly, in the age of social media, these injunctions are useless.
I think that injunctions have been misused. I believe they are supposed to protect innocent parties from damage caused by pointless publicity but they actually seem to be a tool of the rich. People like you and I cannot afford an injunction; a footballer or a media boss can. Being available only to the rich does not in itself make injunctions wrong, but being used simply to hide infidelity does seem to me to be wrong. If a footballer thought that his reputation would be damaged if people knew that he slept with a Z-list Big Brother contestant, he could have refrained from doing so.
What is the solution to irrelevant gossip destroying people’s lives then? I believe that we need much better oversight of the media industry. The Press Complaints Commission is a toothless, meaningless body that hardly ever rules against the newspapers. We need something much stronger, with much more power, and perhaps much more democratic. Newspapers need to be accountable for inaccurate or even fictional stories, and justice needs to be accessible to everyone and not just those that can afford a libel lawyer. We also must require corrections and apologies by newspapers to be of the same prominence as the original story. That means the an incorrect front page headline must be followed up by putting the correction in as a front page headline. A recent complaint about the Daily Mail making a factually incorrect claim that “Half of claimants are not asked to prove eligibility” has been “corrected” by simply publishing a letter of complaint at the bottom of the story on the website. While that may be seen by future viewers, nearly everyone has seen that story and moved on. No one is going to revisit the story just to see if there is a correction! The PCC considers this to have been “amicably resolved.”
Social media has made injunctions useless. Even the prime minister thinks so, so perhaps now we will see some change. We must have better regulation of the media while at the same time ensuring freedom of the press, which is absolutely necessary for a democratic society to function. We must reform the Press Complaints Commission, and we must stop this purchasing of the law by the rich.
Forty Shades of Grey: Ryan Giggs Shagged Imogen Thomas
Telegraph: ‘Hyper-injunction’ stops you talking to MP
Tentacles of Doom: You have zero privacy anyway, get over it
Baskers World: Sticks and Stones. Perhaps it’s time to go?
News Statesman: The weekend Twitter mocked the English Courts