Monday, April 25, 2011

Lifestyles of the Censored and Redacted

Some of you may recall the time Jack Straw found himself embroiled in an unusual tabloid newspaper scandal. He had taken his son - William Straw - to a police station to 'shop him in' for selling cannabis. A court ruling blocked newspapers in England and Wales from reporting the story. The press in Scotland could report the story without any problem, though this meant national broadcasters could not review the Scottish papers for fear of breaking the law. With the Internet very different to how it is today, such a story limped on, impeded by the strength of the legal system blocking an industry's ability to print the news.

Fast-forward to today, and the Straw incident seems to much innocent and forgiving. We now live in the age of the "super injunction" whilst the so-called "hyper injunction" is already in use in some jurisdictions. The two well known early examples involve John Terry, and the Guardian newspapers remarkable Trafigura story. In both cases, media outlets were initially unable to report what had been blocked, or why it had been blocked, or who was involved on either side of the case. The Guardian's front page at the time resembled a Kafka post-it note. "Somebody rang, can't say who, or why, or their number, or for whom they'd called."

The details from the legal document are worth summarising here -

Trafigura's lawyers, Carter-Ruck, produced an extraordinary legal document, whereby they persuaded a judge to not just suppress a confidential and potentially embarrassing document, but also to deny anyone even mentioning the existence of the court proceedings and court order.


This week, Conservative MP and author Louise Bagshawe found herself brought into the latest injunction farce, during recording of the BBC programme Have I Got News For You. During the "odd one out" round (featuring Person A, Person B, Person C, and Person D), Bagshawe mentioned a footballer "whose name definitely does not rhyme with...." and the sound was cut. (Memories of the "Are you a friend of Peter Mandleson" episodes, of course).

In these very contemporary cases, the injunctions have only just managed to hold. Bloggers and tweeters have navigated themselves around the blocks like speed-skaters. It took only a number of Google searches to find the name of Trafigura (though remember that the legal block had initially forbid even Hansard from printing related questions, wrapping ties around freedoms within and beyond Parliament). The current injunction relating to "a family-man footballer whose name rhymes with such-and-such" is all the more bewildering because the person with whom he shaked up can have her name and face and womanly bits flashed all over the tabloids (Imogen Thomas, and no, I hadn't heard of her either) whilst the footballer has the ''freedom'' to live in anonymity.

Keyboard warriors have been tip-toeing around the legal injunctions in an act of defiance ever since they were first used. Identifying the footballer (well, footballers) is not difficult at all, just as identifying Trafigura was child's play. This does not mean the courts are powerless against the First Twitter Corps. To coin a phrase, there's many things we don't know we don't know.

The mood music is not melodic. The press is losing its fight against institutions and companies who can afford not to care. We tend to question the "might of the press" and rightly criticise the tabloid media's moral high-ground and grandstanding. It's easy to mock the morals of the redtops - chain up the pedos and look at this cheeky up-skirt pap shot. How far away from the press do we stand in the fight between privacy and press freedom? Can any celebrity - usually men - demand and expect privacy on their own terms?

We feed and fear the beast, the core problem in this entire issue. Investigative journalism still brings in the stories for the quality presses and tabloids alike - the "he is shagging her" breadcrumbs may make the headlines for being under injunctions, chances are the real scandals will never be uncovered. Beyond the locked doors and along the corridors sings the silent truths hidden and locked away. Our press may not always be moral, but they are free; injunctions of the strength, breadth and depth as we see today are compromising that freedom. Lawyers over-riding Parliament is one thing (and is sometimes greeted with pleasure and applause). But journalists?

It is very dangerous for the might of a lawyers hand to flatten both Parliament and the Press. It is not uncomfortable ground to inhabit - the whistle blowers and freedom-fighters and investigators at the heart of truth as much as Parliamentarians. This is much more than "[][][][][][][][][][] and [][][][][][][][][] have conducted a private affair." At the core of this is covering up as much light as corporations can afford (and that's a lit, enough to exhaust Professor Brian Cox of all his superlatives and metaphor). Choosing sides in arguments is not always easy. It's difficult when the only right and moral choice includes tabloid journalists and Members of Parliament. Enemies closer and all that...