As I think readers will surely know by now, John Hemming MP used Parliamentary privilege today to name the footballer whose anonymity is protected in this privacy case by an injunction, which the High Court decided earlier today to maintain in force.
Since then, first Sky News and now the BBC have named the footballer on air. They’re clearly making a judgement that although the law is unclear on whether it’s legally safe to report what’s said in Parliament that flouts a court order, the risk of any successful legal action against them for contempt of court is so low that it’s well worth taking the residual legal risk.
As I write at nearly 7pm, I’ve read on Twitter that the injunction has still not been discharged, after a second attempt today by lawyers for The Sun – which surprises me. I imagined the hour or so after John Hemming’s outburst had finished it: once SkyNews and then the BBC decided to name the footballer, I assumed the court would find there’s nothing left to enforce. But the order stands, and I’ll wait for the it to be discharged before I name him.
There’s nothing wrong with the privacy law Parliament enacted in the Human Rights Act 1998, and which the judges are loyally applying – except that redtop newspapers want to breach and destroy it in their own commercial interests, and that many internet users have allowed themselves to be persuaded to flout it by a one-sided, self-serving and ill-informed media onslaught. I find it astonishing that, against the background of the News of The World phone hacking scandal, so many people swallow the claim that it’s judges who are out of control. As Alastair Campbell has implied in what he’s tweeted, what’s happened today is no victory for free speech, but for the worst of British journalism.
Just as important as privacy law, though, is the question of Parliamentary privilege and John Hemming’s conduct today. In response to John Whittingdale’s urgent question about injunctions, the Attorney General Dominic Grieve was right to remind MPs of the importance of the rule of law. Hemming, though, was having none of that, deliberately naming the footballer to the clear disapproval of other MPs and of the Speaker, who told him that the purpose of privilege was not simply to flout the law.
In doing so, Hemming has set himself up as the ultimate judge in this case, which I don’t think even involves one of his constituents. Without knowing the full facts, he has effectively given judgment in favour of the tabloid press – just because he feels like it. His sheer arrogance is breathtaking. Hemming plainly abused of Parliamentary privilege today, as he has before as part of his campaign against the family courts. Anyone who thinks the rule of law is important should oppose his antics.
What’s depressing is that many on the internet will now lionise Hemming, who’ll now no doubt gain a wider audience for his onslaught against social workers and family judges. A series of far better contributions to the debate on privacy today was made by a series of far better MPs – Chuka Umunna, Matthew Offord, Gisela Stuart, Tom Watson, John Whittingdale and the Attorney himself. But people will remember the worst.