To tweet or not to tweet?

There are many ingredients when cooking up a classic Hollywood courtroom drama – the age old clash between good and evil, a plucky underdog fighting against the odds and a plot that twists and turns more than a mountain-top road.

The story currently dominating the news has all of these elements.  But if it were on the big screen there would be a gaping hole where the leading man is supposed to be.

Most people were blissfully unaware of super-injunctions until recently. Now it is hard to find a headline that doesn’t mention them.

Granted in secret, they ban not only the naming of the individual or company taking them out, but any acknowledgement of the injunction’s existence too.

The most high-profile case involves former Big Brother contestant Imogen Thomas and The Sun newspaper. They are fighting a court order forbidding Thomas or the media naming the Premiership footballer she allegedly had an affair with.

Speculation over the identity of the player has been at fever pitch and it has swiftly become the worst kept secret in the land. Thousands of users revealed his name on Twitter and one Scottish Sunday newspaper chose to print his picture with just the word ‘censored’ covering his eyes.

On Monday, MP John Hemming used parliamentary privilege to name the player in the Commons and Tuesday saw the footballer splashed across the front pages of every newspaper.

Despite all of this, the injunction still remains in place. We are left with a situation where a High Court judgement has become impossible to enforce and the public are openly flouting it.

Highly-paid footballers are an easy target for scorn, yet they have the same legal expectation of privacy as the rest of us. The player in question has a wife and children – a family who also deserve protection according to the judge who granted the original injunction.

Sure, it could be argued that player has brought the problem on himself, but there has been no establishment of his guilt and the allegations remain just that.

Consequently, the player has issued legal proceedings against Twitter in an attempt to discover the names of users who defied the injunction. This has been met with a now standard response online, as thousands more people re-tweet his identity in protest.

There was a similar reaction following Paul Chambers’ conviction for tweeting a joke threat to blow up South Yorkshire’s Robin Hood airport when frustrated with its closure.

The joke was re-tweeted repeatedly and renowned celebrity tweeter Stephen Fry even offered to pay Chambers’ fine.

The Twitter backlash has become a popular way for the masses to revolt. It’s the silent revolution playing out on computer screens rather than the streets.

Twitter says their service is about the “open flow of information” and it’s not up to them to censor users. Indeed how can you gag what is effectively a series of large conversations – sue 75,000 people?

There is a delicate balance between an individual’s right to privacy and the need for freedom of speech though. It is hard to argue a footballer’s alleged activities are a matter of public interest when whether or not he was having an affair does little to affect the public good.

A clearer case for transparency is the injunction taken out by former Royal Bank of Scotland chief Sir Fred Goodwin, which has since been partially lifted.

Again allegations centred on an affair with a colleague; crucially at a time when Goodwin was steering RBS into one of the biggest financial collapses in history. It is not too far-fetched to suggest that any affair may have caused him to take his eye off the ball, at a huge cost to taxpayers.

The media like to paint a picture of super-injunctions as a tool to protect the rich and powerful. They estimate at least 40 celebrities have one currently in place.

Newspapers like The Sun protest that freedom of speech should prevail and gagging orders are a threat to the open and accountable justice system we all hold dear.

However it is hard to believe their arguments are driven by a sense of moral conscience rather than the sniff of boosted sales. All of the injunctions challenged so far involve the alleged extra-marital activities of rich and powerful men – classic red-top kiss and tell material.

The debate over privacy versus freedom of speech looks set to run and run, with MPs and judges fighting over who should remedy the situation. One thing they all agree on however is that currently, to borrow a quote from Dickens’ Oliver Twist, “The law is an ass”.

Related Links

Telegraph: Law must be changed to stop gagging orders

Guardian: Ryan Giggs and the enemy of web freedom

Daily Mail: The four celebrities who could face huge legal bills for naming Ryan Giggs