The BBC has reported that someone on Twitter has purported to “out” a number of celebrities who have supposedly obtained “superinjunctions” to protect their privacy.
It’s unlikely of course that all of them are “superinjunctions” at all, which are injunctions the existence of which cannot be reported. And who knows whether any of what’s been tweeted is true at all. As the BBC reported in the piece I’ve linked to, Jemima Khan says it’s not true in her case. It may all be false.
In any event, I absolutely condemn this latest move in a diffuse but vociferous campaign by some people in the mainstream media and on the web against the right to respect for private life, a right guaranteed by the European Convention on Human Rights, and legislated into our domestic law by Parliament in the Human Rights Act.
It’s not so-called “superinjunctions” that have gone too far. What has gone too far is the nasty, prurient public hounding of people for their sexual behaviour, and the self-serving campaign by some to defend their “right” to hound as some sort of free speech cause célèbre.
Quite apart from the possible contempt of court these tweets represent, they’re also utterly irresponsible. How can the person know they’re true? Haven’t they considered for a moment the partners, children and parents of the people supposedly “outed”? It’s also worth mentioning that in one case, some of the Twitter remarks and “jokes” now being aimed at one of those “outed” have a really horrible racial component. I won’t quote or link to them for obvious reasons. This is the gutter into which media red-topism, allied to self-righteous anti-privacy militancy, has dragged us.
As I’ve watched this so-called “superinjunction” debate take its course over the last few weeks I’ve been exasperated, frustrated and depressed to see how a word originally coined against the background of really legitimate concerns about the behaviour of a company and its lawyers has been commandeered by journalists to campaign against privacy generally, in cases not involving superinjunctions at all; and used by John Hemming MP in particular of course to further his own personal campaign against the family courts. Depressed and frustrated too by how gullible so many people seem to have been in apparently accepting the conventional media shtick about “a back door privacy law”.
But this latest move makes me ashamed of my fellow citizens and internet users, and angry too. What we have here is the shameless indugence of gossip and rumour-mongering dressed up as championship of free speech. Some of it is really disgusting, and all of it is an insult to those really denied free speech, in Iran, say, or China. Journalists ought to be shouting about their inability to witness important events in Syria, instead of campaigning for voyeurism here.
Two further points about all this have struck me for a while, and may be worth mentioning.
First, it’s interesting that in other contexts, many people have been whipped up into concerns about their own privacy that are completely unjustified. Take DNA, for instance. No one will ever be able to out you as anything, or for doing anything, because your DNA is a on a database – if it ever is. The invasion of privacy involved in keeping your DNA profile is completely theoretical. And there’s a real public interest – the attempt to catch criminals – justifying whatever slight invasion of privacy there is. In contrast, media exposure of people’s relationships, sexuality and so on involves a real invasion of privacy, usually without any public interest justification whatever. Yet this real privacy many people think should merrily be ignored. I find that strange.
Second, a reason sometimes trotted out as a justification for outing people’s private lives is their supposed “hypocrisy”. Well, there may be something in that in a very few cases. But the biggest hypocrisy of all is to argue that other people should have no privacy, if you wish to retain any at all for yourself. I would take the whining of anti-privacy injunction campaigners more seriously if they were prepared to publish on the internet all the most intimate details of their own private lives, hour by hour. It can be done now using blogs and Twitter, and I think anyone who argues against any legal protection of privacy at all should do so. If not, aren’t they the hypocrites?
But back to the serious argument. Of course we need freedom of expression. Freedom to publish cartoons mocking religion. Freedom to take photographs in the street. Freedom to publish novels without being threatened with death. Freedom to put on a play without it being closed by a mob. All these are important, insufficiently protected in this country and insufficiently debated in our trivialised, infantilised media.
But as well as free speech, we need a decent public space in which private lives are respected where there is no good reason to invade them. We need, too, a media that is itself worthy of respect. The current law, voted for by Parliament with its eyes open and being applied correctly by the judges – if anything in a way that leans towards freedom of expression – is the right way to achieve these things. If we’re ever to get them, then this campaign of outrage and outing over “superinjunctions” must stop.