By Katy Barnett
The law is generally unsuccessful when its ability to prevent the flow of information is pushed to the limit. As I’ve described in an earlier post, the Spycatcher case is a primary example: the more the British government attempted to prevent Peter Wright from publishing his book on MI5, the more publicity they gave it. And the English government met very little sympathy from courts in other jurisdictions when it attempted to suppress Spycatcher in Australia, New Zealand and Hong Kong, even though those jurisdictions were former colonial outposts.
The latest iteration of this particular battle has occurred on Twitter in the UK. A user named @InjunctionSuper set up an account which made a number of allegations against a variety of celebrities. Among other allegations, a prominent footballer (later outed as Manchester United’s Ryan Giggs) was accused of having an affair with a reality television star (an injunction preventing publication of allegations had been awarded by Eady J in CTB v News Group Ltd  EWHC 1232 in April); an actor was said to have used the services of a prostitute named Helen Wood; and it was alleged that Jeremy Clarkson had an injunction preventing the publication or mention of intimate photographs of himself with Jemima Khan.
All these people were said to have had “super injunctions” which prevent not only publication of the details of the allegations and the identity of those concerned, but even prevent people and media outlets from reporting on the existence of the injunction itself. Importantly, to breach the injunction, or to knowingly assist in or permit a breach of the injunction, constitutes contempt of court. People who breach such injunctions may be imprisoned, fined or have their assets seized. In the event, some of the celebrities in question did not have “super injunctions”, but merely anonymity injunctions (which prevent disclosure of confidential information and the identity of one or both of the parties, but do not prevent discussion of their existence).
Ironically, the story broke when Khan responded to the tweet, vehemently denying it:
Only minutes after the claims were published on Sunday, 37-year-old Mrs Khan denied having an affair with Clarkson, saying the allegation was ‘untrue and upsetting’.
‘OMG – Rumour that I have a super injunction preventing publication of “intimate” photos of me and Jeremy Clarkson. NOT TRUE!’ she tweeted.
A minute later she added: ‘I have no super injunction and I had dinner with Jeremy and his wife last night. Twitter, Stop!’
She added: ‘The proof that I haven’t got a super injunction is that the papers have printed my name (and no one else’s – for fear of being sued).’
The socialite received supportive text messages from both Clarkson and his wife Francie after the allegations emerged.
Clarkson used humour to dismiss the claims. In a text to Mrs Khan he said: ‘It’s odd. I’m sure I’d remember if any photos of us existed.’
Khan is correct: the media showed no compunction in mentioning her name, whereas it has been cautious about mentioning other people.
Of course, “super injunctions” and anonymised injunctions are very expensive to obtain, and as media lawyer Mark Stephens commented to The Independent: ‘It’s the beginning of the end. Even a rather thick footballer is going to think twice before handing £100,000 to a greedy lawyer if the greedy lawyer can’t guarantee that it will actually stay secret.” The Daily Mail reported that Giggs had spent £150,000 on lawyers to keep the details of his affair secret, but paradoxically, the greater his efforts to keep the affair secret, the more publicity it received (a clear instance of the ‘Streisand effect‘ at work yet again). As publicist Max Clifford noted in the Mail article linked above, Giggs might have been better off not to resort to the law at all. He is now alleged to have started proceedings against Twitter and “persons unknown”, using the initials ‘CTB’. This rather nice graph at the Guardian shows how mentions of Giggs’ name spiked on Twitter on 20 May once his proceedings against Twitter were announced:
Could those who mention Giggs’ name in the UK be the subject of legal proceedings? It is estimated that about 30,000 Twitter users have breached injunctions by tweeting the identities of various people covered by those injunctions. It has also been reported that the Attorney-General is considering whether to prosecute a journalist for breaching a privacy order involving a different footballer. Meanwhile, a Scots newspaper published details about Giggs, arguing that English law did not extend to Scotland, although — despite the recent success of the SNP in elections — this would seem doubtful.
With impeccable timing, the Master of the Rolls of the UK Court of Appeal, recently released report about “super injunctions”. In summary, the Committee concluded:
- The principle of open justice is a fundamental constitutional principle which should only be derogated from where “strictly necessary in order to secure the proper administration of justice”;
- There is a difference between super injunctions (which restrain a person from publishing confidential and private information about the claimant where the very existence of the injunction may not be disclosed) and anonymised injunctions (which merely restrain a person from publishing confidential and private information about the claimant where the names of either or both of the parties to the proceedings are not stated);
- Since Terry v Persons Unknown  1 FCR 659, as far as the Committee is aware, only two known super-injunctions have been granted to protect information said to be private or confidential;
- ‘As they incorporate derogations from the principle of open justice, super-injunctions and anonymised injunctions can only be granted when they are strictly necessary. They cannot be granted so as to become in practice permanent. Where super-injunctions and anonymised injunctions are granted they should be kept under review by the court’ and they should have clear return dates (pursuant to Terry);
- In the recent past, super-injunctions and anonymised injunctions have also sometimes been more widely used than is strictly necessary by UK courts; and
- A new procedure should be developed which allows the media to be informed of such injunctions in advance, although there may be times when this is not appropriate.
Interestingly, the Committee did not consider new media or the difficulties associated with controlling it in any detail. One of the key questions is whether such orders can effectively be enforced against entities such as Google and Twitter. Giggs’ case may represent a testing ground in this regard. Another difficulty is that many users are anonymous, making it difficult to find out who they are. Further, it is difficult to restrain publications outside the jurisdiction (as the Spycatcher cases showed in an earlier era).
As was noted in The Independent, the anonymised injunctions which Twitter users breached are only those involving the alleged sexual indiscretions of celebrities. Recently, UK Twitter users have been banned from identifying a brain-damaged woman whose mother wishes to remove life-support, but no one has breached this order. Since 2000, with the enactment of Article 8 of the ECHR (protecting privacy) into UK law, there has been an expanding use of breach of confidence in the UK to restrain breaches of privacy (see Campbell v Mirror Groups Newspapers Ltd and Douglas v Hello! (No. 3)). Perhaps the public are reacting by reasserting the sentiments of Lord Denning in Woodward v Hutchins, a case dealing with unsavoury allegations in the Daily Mirror newspaper about the private life of Tom Jones and other pop stars. Denning LJ said:
If a group of this kind seek publicity which is to their advantage, it seems to me that they cannot complain if a servant or employee of theirs afterwards discloses the truth about them. If the image which they fostered was not a true image, it is in the public interest that it should be corrected … In this case the balance comes down in favour of the truth being told, even if it should involve some breach of confidential information. As there should be ‘truth in advertising’, so there should be truth in publicity. The public should not be misled.
Celebrities seek publicity in the press in exchange for public adulation, but audiences often want a more “true” picture than the highly managed images the celebrities want to project. Perhaps this is why Twitterers are particularly wont to breach injunctions relating to celebrity privacy. Perhaps they dislike hypocrisy (self-presented “family man” turns out to be a serial philanderer etc). Or perhaps it’s simply the Streisand effect writ large – the very fact that the information is prohibited is what makes it attractive and interesting to people.
Ken Parish at Club Troppo has a good summary of the legal and practical issues involved with these kind of cases:
My own view is that there is a distinct difference between the “public interest and stuff that is interesting to the public” (as Richard Ackland succinctly phrases it) from a privacy viewpoint, so that privacy should be protected by the law where the public’s interest in knowing stuff is overwhelmingly prurient. Where that is the case I don’t see that the public interest in freedom of speech has much force, irrespective of the degree of fame of the subject of salacious information. The fact that a person is famous does not mean they forfeit all moral claim to personal privacy in my view.
On the other hand, the “outing” of Ryan Giggs suggests that, whatever we might think as individuals about whether a right to privacy should exist, the borderless and almost universal nature of the Internet means that a court in any given country is unlikely to be able effectively or for very long to prevent disclosure of information about the identity of a person about whom salacious rumours are circulating. In one sense I suppose that’s not very different from the social situation in western societies before the urbanisation of the 18th and 19th centuries. Most people lived in villages and knew everyone else’s business anyway. Rights to privacy in that sense are just an artefact of a short period of history when the practical anonymity conferred by large urban agglomerations of people had not yet been rendered ineffective by Wikileaks, Twitter, blogs and Facebook and the underlying Internet architecture that makes it almost impossible for the courts of a single country to keep information confidential.
Like Ken, I feel that we do not have a right to prurient information about celebrities: but whether the law can actually control the dissemination of such information in the present climate is quite another question.
Katy Barnett is a Lecturer at the University of Melbourne Law School