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.