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Sunday 24 April 2011

Judges gag the press to shield the rich and famous

Ruth Dudley Edwards fears that the extension of privacy laws in the UK will destroy press freedom

PETER Crouch is a gangly chap who plays for Tottenham Hotspur and is shortly to marry a well-known lingerie model. Once asked what he would have become had he not been a footballer, the honest lad said: "I think I would have been a virgin."

Money and fame make the plainest men strangely attractive. Women throw themselves at footballers, actors and singers -- the more unscrupulous with the deliberate intention of selling the bedroom secrets to a tabloid.

I have sympathy for men who succumb to such temptations. As my mother observed when a gaggle of fellow-teachers denounced Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton for having an adulterous affair: "Perhaps if we were in close proximity to one of the sexiest people in the world even we might sin."

I know it's unrealistic to expect an uneducated young man with surging testosterone and more money than he knows what to do with to behave sensibly at all times. I've nothing but contempt for slappers who kiss-and-tell. I believe people are entitled to keep their private lives private.

And I loathe the gutter press. Yet it's been very scary that in the United Kingdom unelected judges have been undermining democracy by gagging the press with privacy injunctions protecting the rich and famous from embarrassment.

Without a by-your-leave from parliament, judges have been using the European Convention of Human Rights to extend privacy laws.

Increasingly, they allow Article 8 (which provides a right to respect for a person's "private and family life, his home and his correspondence") to trump Article 10, which provides the right to "freedom of expression".

So anxious have been these elderly, well-to-do men to protect the rich that they have introduced the phenomenon of the super-injunction, under which not only does a court order the suppression of information about the indiscretions of a particular person, but forbids anyone from even reporting that an injunction exists. Some footballers have taken this a stage further and carry around with them a threatening legal document with which to intimidate their pick-ups the morning after.

Last month, the most hated banker in the UK, Sir Fred Goodwin ("Fred the Shred", who wrecked the Royal Bank of Scotland), secured an injunction so draconian it banned the press from even mentioning that he was a banker.

However, a doughty Liberal Democrat MP called John Hemming used parliamentary privilege to reveal the existence of the Goodwin injunction. We can't be told what Goodwin was trying to conceal, but industrious users of the internet have drawn their own conclusions.

Last week, another preposterous ruling gave protection to some bloke from the entertainment industry from having his affair discussed because he had teenage children who might get bullied in the playground.

"The purpose of the injunction," said the judge, "is both to preserve the stability of the family while the appellant and his wife pursue a reconciliation and to save the children the ordeal of playground ridicule when that would inevitably follow publicity."

Logically, you could extend this to protect criminals.

Nor are these injunctions all about covering up indiscretions: according to Hemming, others have included the silencing of one of his constituents who complained about the conduct of a social worker, and a ban on discussing a commercial case involving allegations about water being contaminated on passenger ships.

Some judges have behaved in such an authoritarian manner that Hemming is proposing that the House of Commons should pass a resolution to imprison them.

"Parliament," he says, "needs to make a stand to say that it refuses to be defeated or blinded."

And Prime Minister David Cameron has said he's feeling "a little uneasy" and believes parliament rather than courts should decide on the balance between privacy and press freedom.

Ireland should watch out. We are signatories to the same convention. Our libel laws are even more inimical to free speech than those of the UK -- the top global destination for libel tourism. (Example: if I make an allegation in a book published in America against, say, a billionaire I believe sponsors terrorism, he can sue me in Britain on the grounds that two copies were sold here by Amazon.) Our learned friends are quite as greedy as their UK counterparts, and will be looking enviously at the large sums of money being earned in London to stop journalists doing their job. After the farce of the last few years, we should be seeking to encourage investigative journalism, not close it down.

Solomon would have a tough job balancing Articles 8 and 10, but Article 10 is more important for a healthy democracy. If parliament stops this racket, more scandals will be exposed and more marriages will be destroyed. If that's the price of a free press, it must be paid. After all, even footballers could learn to keep their pants on.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards