Twitter 1, UK justice 0 as gag order collapses

Britain’s scandal-hungry news media, an outspoken
parliamentarian and thousands of ordinary people using the Twitter
micro-blogging site have dealt a body blow to an institution of
British justice, flouting a gag order imposed by one of the
country’s top judges.

Soccer star Ryan Giggs had been granted an injunction preventing
media from publishing allegations that he’d had an affair with
reality television contestant Imogen Thomas, but over the past few
days his identity has increasingly appeared across the Internet,
leaving newspapers to chomp at the bit as Twitter users swapped
jokes about the sportsman’s alleged indiscretion.

The journalists knew. The soccer fans knew. Even Prime Minister
David Cameron knew, telling morning television that it was ”rather
unsustainable where newspapers can’t print something everyone else
is talking about.”

But breaking an injunction is a serious business, and the dam
didn’t completely burst until British lawmaker John Hemming
identified Manchester United star Giggs in Parliament on Monday.
Members of Parliament benefit from absolute immunity, meaning that
they have free rein to say what they wish and shrug off the threat
of contempt of court.

Until then, Britain’s media had largely held its fire, relying
instead on knowing references in gossip columns and blacked-out
profile shots. But the pressure had been building all weekend, with
hundreds of tweets an hour identifying Giggs as the man behind the
gag order. Soccer fans openly taunted Giggs about the matter at a
recent game. One journalist even blurted out part of the man’s name
in a broadcast interview.

The case has increasingly become a touchstone for arguments over
what Britons know as ”super-injunctions” – sweeping legal
measures that ban journalists from writing about something, or even
writing about the fact that they can’t write about something.

The injunction that had been at work in the soccer star’s case
was more properly known as an ”anonymized injunction” – which
meant that media organizations such as The Associated Press could
write about him, so long as they kept his name a secret.

Gag orders aren’t necessarily devoted to tawdry personal
matters, but of the 30 or so such injunctions awarded in Britain
since 2008, all but three have gone to males. That has lead some
legal commentators to suggest that the injunctions are being used
by wealthy and powerful men to keep their alleged sexual
indiscretions from being aired in public.

It’s in that context that Giggs’ name increasingly dripped out
over the past few weeks. Every time his legal team tried to plug a
leak, several more sprang.

Thomas went to Britain’s High Court to try to overturn the
injunction earlier this month. She was defeated, but a mysterious
Twitter account revealed Giggs’ name anyway, a move that swiftly
drew national attention. Giggs’ lawyers only poured fuel on the
fire when they demanded that Twitter reveal who was behind the
Internet campaign, prompting some outraged users to spread the news
even more widely.

On Sunday, Scotland’s Sunday Herald became the first British
newspaper to flout the injunction, publishing a thinly censored
photograph of the soccer star on its front page. Only his eyes were
blacked out, and beneath the sportsman’s clearly recognizable face,
the Herald wrote that ”everyone knows” this was the star
”accused of using the courts to keep allegations of a sexual
affair secret.”

In an editorial, the Herald said it was ”unsustainable” for
newspapers not to be able to print information that was available
on the Internet.

The paper quickly noted that it was not accusing the sportsman
of carrying out an affair, but said that ”whether the allegations
against him are true or not has no relevance to this debate.”

”The issue is one of freedom of information and of a growing
argument in favor of more restrictive privacy laws,” the paper
said.

Speaking on Britain’s ITV before Giggs’ name was made completely
public, Cameron called for a ”time out” to ”have a proper look
at this.” Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt promised lawmakers he
would create a committee to examine how the rules governing gagging
orders could be changed.

”We take seriously the need to ensure we have the correct
balance between privacy and freedom of expression,” he said.

Meanwhile, Britain’s High Court turned down attempt after
attempt to formally lift the injunction. Nevertheless, the average
wise-cracking Internet user isn’t likely to face legal action. As
Hemming noted in his comments to Parliament, 75,000 people have
named Giggs on Twitter, and ”it is obviously impracticable to
imprison them all.”

Hemming was quickly admonished by House of Commons Speaker John
Bercow for his outburst.

A lawyer for Giggs did not immediately return an email seeking
comment.