The superinjunction only intensifies the gossip game
Yes, society’s obsession with people’s private peccadilloes and antics is a problem – but it won’t be fixed through illiberal injunctions.
The high profile are gagging, the press is losing the ability to speak, and now the Twitterati is vomiting up half-digested rumours. All the signs are that Britain is in the grip of the legal virus known as ‘injunctionitis’.
It makes for an unedifying spectacle. In between news of uprisings in the Middle East, the killing of Osama bin Laden and the marriage of Will’n’Kate, the British press has been running another set of stories about what it is forbidden from reporting. The reason for this is the increasingly problematic use of the injunction, a legal prohibition issued by a judge that prevents a particular story from being published. While these have been issued for a few years now with largely little public knowledge – especially after the use of so-called superinjunctions, which forbid people from mentioning the fact that an injunction exists – over the past year or so, the injunction in all its forms has started to make the news all by itself. Which, you’d be correct in thinking, rather defies the point.
In fact, over the past few weeks, the attempts by certain individuals to gag the press have resulted in an outbreak of calculated press indiscretion. There has been the tale of the unnamed English actor who employed the services of Helen Wood, a prostitute whose previous clients include footballer Wayne Rooney. Of course, given the injunction, Wood couldn’t do a proper bonk-and-blab about the actor, but there was enough detail there for a salacious few pages’ worth. Then there was the unnamed Premier League footballer who had allegedly been having an affair with Big Brother 7 victim/star Imogen Thomas. She has since been frequently pictured looking disconsolate in a series of fetching bikinis.
It has not just been the tabloids making news of the unreportable. There has also been the case of ex-Royal Bank of Scotland boss Fred Goodwin who took out a hyper-injunction, which absurdly forbids anyone from even talking about the subject of the injunction to the lawmakers themselves – namely, parliament. (Although, of course, someone did, hence we know about its existence if not any of the details.) And things became even crazier when a prominent member of the media, BBC journalist Andrew Marr, revealed that he himself had violated his own profession’s freedom by taking out an injunction in 2008 to hush up an infidelity. In fact, as The Times gleefully reported, there are over 30 high-profile injunctions currently in operation involving a whole heap of public figures, from footballers to politicians.
The result of all this public allusion and innuendo on the part of those in the know has been a raft of online speculation from those in the dark. This culminated yesterday in the publication on Twitter of the alleged identities of several celebrities rumoured to have taken out not-so-super injunctions. Given that many of these rumours have been circulating around social networks and message boards for weeks, this particular Twitter account is little more than collated gossip. Not that those named are any less annoyed, as the following tweet from socialite Jemima Khan shows: ‘Rumour that I have a superinjunction preventing publication of “intimate” photos of me and Jeremy Clarkson. NOT TRUE!’ Cue a collective sigh of relief: a glimpse of Clarkson getting ‘intimate’ with anyone in the morning papers is enough to curdle the breakfast milk.
What has been notable about the reaction to injunctionitis is that very few people have even tried to defend the freedom of the press. Instead, there has been an across-the-board recognition that there needs to be some sort of privacy law. The question is merely who ought to be drawing it up: judges, aided and abetted by the Human Rights Act, or parliament, aided and abetted by the Human Rights Act. Even the head of free speech campaign Index on Censorship writes that ‘all sensible advocates of free speech’ accept ‘the entitlement to privacy as enshrined in the Human Rights Act’.
Yet however tawdry, not to mention infernal, this cycle of injunction and often nasty gossip has become, a privacy law is not the answer. The law courts, or even parliament, are no place to decide what we are permitted and what we are not permitted to know. To argue this is to assume that either a handful of the bewigged or a smattering of the elected are in a position to decide what it is in our interests to know and what it is not. In other words, this is to assume that the public is in no position to judge for itself whether it ought to have knowledge of a particular individual’s private conduct.
And this is the key point. To argue against a privacy law is not to give a big thumbs up to ensuring that every bit of a person’s laundry is aired in public, whether soiled, rumoured to be soiled, or indeed resplendently Daz-white clean. Quite the opposite. The increasing publicisation of private life, the growing tendency to make a public show of private behaviour, is nothing to be celebrated. This doesn’t just involve those slaughtered at the altar of public transparency on account of some private peccadillo or vice. It also involves those who seemingly benefit by apparently baring all, whether it’s a politician prostituting his wholesome, family-oriented personality or a former glamour model confessing to drug addiction and bulimia. Either way, the let-it-all-hang-out fetish of our times has debased public life and erased private life: we are encouraged to judge public figures, from politicians to footballers, on their private life rather than their public performance; and we are left to suspect those recidivists who want to keep their private life separate as people with something to hide.
Just as exposing private vice, whether hacked up in a phone message or snapped up with a long-range lens, has become an acceptable and principal objective in journalism, so in public, too, speculating and gossiping about possible private vice has become an acceptable pastime. However, this debasement cannot be rectified by law or held at bay by injunctions. Rather, a privacy law is premised on an acceptance that we as a society are inexorably muck-spreading. That is, if it wasn’t for our betters in the High Court or at Westminster, we’d be hoovering up every snoop-and-scoop on just about anyone.
But that is simply not true. The court of public opinion needs cultivating from within not patronising from without. After all, privacy has been socially valued in the past. And it’s only when we come once again to value our own privacy as something positive rather than something suspect that the privacy of others, celebrities or not, will be treated with a bit more respect.
Dot Cotton, the aged but popular character in BBC soap EastEnders, begins many of her scenes with ‘I’m not one to gossip, but…’. Hers is a memory of a time when to make a conversational subject of another’s troubles was frowned upon. It is a sentiment the twittering injunction-breakers would do well to remember.
Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.