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Monday, May 16, 2011 

Anything else going on apart from...?

"It's been a week where you sit there thinking, is there anything else going on in this country apart from a bunch of z-list celebrities having sex with each other?"

So asked Ian Hislop, in what was to be the last episode of Have I Got News for You to feature Angus Deayton as host. It was also the same week in which Ulrika Jonsson said that she had been sexually assaulted by a well-known television presenter, who was inadvertently named by Matthew Wright shortly afterwards. The past week has seen a very similar situation, albeit it slightly hampered by how we're not supposed to know who some of those z-list celebrities are.

If nothing else, you have to hand it to the tabloid press: it often accuses the supposedly more serious-minded broadcasters and papers of hypocrisy on the grounds that they more or less duplicate their coverage, albeit under the guise of poking fun or discussing the potential implications for press freedom. There's been no such back-biting this time, for the reason that they've been amazingly successful in turning what have been only the latest incremental development in privacy principles into an issue of freedom of speech so vital that the prime minister has intervened on more than one occasion to declare his unease. Under the banner of "super-injunctions", almost none of which the recently issued orders have actually been, they've campaigned vigorously for their right to print more or less what they like about prominent individuals and what they might have been up to, invoking morality, censorship, democracy and almost anything else they think might win more supporters to their cause. Helped along by social networks and the difficulty of removing information once it's out in the wild on the internet, as well as a growing feeling, especially among those who live their lives online and hide very little about themselves from anyone who cares enough to look, almost no actual attention has been paid to the details of the cases themselves, the way the tabloids have personally fought the injunctions, or indeed to just how open they've been about why they really want to return the the height of "bonk" journalism as practised back in the late 80s.

Indeed, just how limited the general debate has been was showcased on Newsnight on Friday, where Hugh Grant and Charlotte Harris faced off against Helen Wood and Fraser Nelson. Grant, fresh from bugging a News of the World journalist, came across exactly you suspect as the tabloids would like: outraged that anyone should know absolutely anything about him without his express permission. Much as I find the argument that if you don't want to end up on the front page of a newspaper you shouldn't sleep with prostitutes to be self-serving in the extreme, Grant did his best to prove it, arrogant throughout while attempting at times to play the victim, demanding Nelson to condemn certain practices which he had never condoned. Charlotte Harris, who must be much more convincing in court than she has been in any of her innumerable television appearances, gave her questionable and limited legal analysis, while Fraser Nelson, who despite always looking incredibly pleased with himself seemed to be ignorant of many of the details of the recent cases. Then there was Wood, called on just twice during the entire programme, who looked distinctly uncomfortable throughout.

She wasn't helped by a quite incredible second report from Kate Williams, which happily alleged that injunctions were returning us to the Victorian era where rich men could do as they please and the women were left voiceless, as it galloped through over a century of sexual history in a couple of minutes.
Solipsistic doesn't quite adequately describe it, and poor old Helen was so confused that she clearly hadn't quite grasped what the sexual revolution was when asked whether it had worked for her. Considering she was on Newsnight talking about working as a high class escort, and indeed has been paid a considerable sum having sold her story vis-a-vis Wayne Rooney, even if she can't identify another "high profile" male she performed sex acts on, it's hardly resulted in her penury and exclusion from society, referred to as a tart and hooker in the same press she made a deal with or not.

Just how potentially misled we've been by the self-serving reports in the tabloids, gobbled up and regurgitated whole by the rest of the media is demonstrated by the interim judgement in the case involving Imogen Thomas and the anonymous, although widely named footballer. Contrary to Thomas's (literal) sob story of how her name's been run through the mud despite not ever wanting to sell her story, Mr Justice Eady relates the footballer's side of events. According to him, the whole thing appears to have been a set-up between her and the Sun, where she demanded to meet the player on two separate occasions at different hotels, both times asking for money with the obvious implicit threat being that otherwise she'd sell her story. Each time it seems the paper was waiting to take pictures of their arrivals: if the player paid up, then she got her money and the paper still had the story with no evidence that Thomas herself had been involved; if he didn't, then she would presumably have been reimbursed by the Sun. The footballer additionally says that rather than the six-month long relationship Thomas claims, they had only met three times between September and December last year. While that hasn't been contradicted by Thomas's representatives, she did later deny that she'd either asked for money or had "caused" the Sun's initial report last month.

While Eady is only presenting the case as it currently stands before any trial, the footballer's side of the story is all too plausible. It also fits with the pattern that rather than most of the injunctions being issued after individuals getting wind of a story or being contacted prior to publication, there is often also an element of blackmail involved, as there was in the controversial ruling where Eady issued a contra mundum injunction, as well as in that involving Zac Goldsmith. Eady, clearly at pains, goes on to point out despite much of the comment that the current process has been built around two major rulings by the House of the Lords, with four even more recent cases where the Lords refused permission to appeal (paragraph 21). Moreover, as he writes, in cases where blackmail is either alleged or where it looks to have conceivably been involved, anonymity has been previously given as a "matter of public policy". It's only now, when all the details have not even begun to be made public that this has been questioned.

Damningly, as Eady goes on, the Sun's representatives didn't even attempt to argue that any story would be in the public interest. Instead they simply claimed that Thomas's rights to freedom of expression under Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights were being denied by the footballer's "reasonable expectation of privacy". Worth quoting in full are the two final paragraphs of his ruling:

On the evidence before me, as at 14 and 20 April, I formed the view that the Claimant would be "likely" to obtain a permanent injunction at trial, if the matter goes that far. As I have said, it remains uncontradicted. The information is such that he is still entitled to a "reasonable expectation of privacy" and no countervailing argument has been advanced to suggest that the Article 10 rights of the Defendants, or indeed of anyone else, should prevail. There is certainly no suggestion of any legitimate public interest in publishing such material.

Moreover, in so far as Ms Thomas wishes to exercise her Article 10 right by selling her life story, she is entitled to do so, but only subject to the qualification that she is not thereby relieved of any obligation of confidence she may owe, or free to intrude upon the privacy rights of others: see e.g. McKennitt v Ash, cited above, at [28]-[32] and [50]-[51]. In so far as there are any conflicts of evidence or of recollection between her and the Claimant, it will be for the court to resolve them at the appropriate time. I will discuss with counsel whether it would be appropriate to order a speedy trial for that purpose.

This more than rebuts Thomas's claim afterward that she was being denied the opportunity to defend herself: if she wishes at length to contradict the footballer's version of events, then she can and hopefully will, albeit without naming him.

If this latest ruling were the exception to the rule, then the campaign waged over the past few weeks would be worthy of support. As previously argued, some injunctions have been questionable in their sweeping nature, but far too often as the Guardian pointed out they've been confused with our libel laws, which are currently under review. Despite having emitted such sound and fury, in many of the cases the tabloids don't even pretend that the public interest will be genuinely served by their serving up of the celebrity shags of the week; instead they make the highly dubious argument that it's such sensationalism and gossip that has enabled them to provide other journalism and campaigns which have benefited the wider public. Deprived of them, they'd wither on the vine and die, especially now as the internet has so eaten into their market.

Even in this time of declining circulations, the Mail sells over 2 million copies a day while the Sun clocks in at just under 3 million. Neither have suffered the massive falls of their competitors, and both will continue to be printed for a long time to come. They might fear the effect of kiss 'n' tells being completely choked off, yet even under the most extreme reading of Eady's latest ruling it seems laughable that every z-list celeb will be lining up for an injunction to cover up their dalliances. As morally (and hypocritically) outraged as the tabloid editors and long-time hacks undoubtedly are by the turn of events, it's cover as much over the phone-hacking scandal as it is an attempt to provoke David Cameron into doing something about it. What's more, the ultimate victory has been in making everyone delve into this world of who's shagging who, to make those of us who'd rather just let them get on with it have to dive into the depths of the "privacy" debate. Where Orwell once wrote of the decline of the English murder, so too they want to forestall the decline of the English affair, and they'll try everything in their power to do so.

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