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Sunday 15 May 2011

Super-gags virtually dead in Twitterland

If you behave badly, accept that you may be found out and try to laugh about it, writes Ruth Dudley Edwards

IT WAS a remarkable week on the freedom-of-speech front last week.

When asked by friends for the name of the woman involved in the Andrew Marr super-injunction farce in Britain, I had obligingly told them, though I suppose that in theory I was committing some offence. I had already been told the name of the footballer who had an affair with a beauty queen and the actor who had used the services of a prostitute previously employed by Wayne Rooney, and as an assiduous reader of Private Eye, had seen heavy hints about the same names.

Twitter was alive with fact and rumour, causing the socialite Jemima Khan to tweet: "OMG rumour that I have a super-injunction preventing publication of 'intimate' photos of me and Jeremy Clarkson. NOT TRUE!" As indeed it wasn't, but it alerted the world that names were being named.

On Tuesday at 08.31, a friend posted on Facebook: "Where can I find this twitter list? (Mr Justice Eady willing)" -- Eady being the judge quickest on the draw with super-injunctions -- and had the address by 08.33. Nosily I followed the lead, as tens of thousands had already done and learned something of the private life of another couple of actors. Two million other tweeters followed suit. Lord Falconer, the former Lord Chancellor, commented: "If a point is reached as a matter of evidence when everyone knows who the injunctions are about, then they become pretty pointless. It is concerning that people can do this and break the law. It sounds like it's very difficult to make sure that injunctions like this are complied with."

It's not difficult. It's next to impossible: legal gagging is virtually dead. As Jeremy Hunt, the UK Culture Secretary, said, the internet is "making a mockery" of privacy laws.

Then came the judgement by the European Court of Human Rights on Max Mosley's application to have journalists legally required to notify the subject of their articles prior to publication, subject to a 'public interest' exception. The era of super-injunc tions had understandably made the press less inclined to give people the chance to challenge a story in advance: one whiff of a scandal and celebs were off to their lawyers.

Mosley had won a libel case against the News of the World, which had treated him disgracefully, but while the court severely criticised the newspaper, it ruled against Mosley on the grounds of "the chilling effect to which a pre-notification requirement risks giving rise". This ruling is a key victory for investigative journalism in the UK and Ireland.

So what's next? In the UK, David Cameron has ordered a review to see how decisions on privacy can be taken by parliament rather than judges, but since social networking sites are uncontrollable and run from abroad, it's hard to see what kind of legislation will work. People have to accept that if you're in the public eye, it's virtually impossible to keep your private life private.

One person who has not yet accepted that the game is up is, bizarrely, Julian Assange of Wikileaks. Not only does Assange get angry with journalists who ask questions he doesn't want to answer, he gags his staff. Leak information to Wikileaks and they claim to own it. Wikileaks employees are required to sign a confidentiality agreement imposing a penalty of £12m should they breach it, or even say they are gagged.

It has taken Prince Charles's wife Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, to bring some robust common sense to the issue. Both she and her husband have suffered grievously from press intrusion, yet in a speech last week at the London Press Club Awards, she described freedom of expression as being "at the heart of our democratic system".

It was the job of the press to "question, debate and criticise" and to have a "pivotal" role in scrutinising all aspects of society.

She took on a stultifyingly ideology of our times: "In our right to speak freely," she said, "please let us not become too politically correct, because surely political correctness is as severe a form of censorship as any". What was more, she extolled the propensity of the British to laugh at themselves -- the highest form of humour -- while being "ridiculous and cutting, naughty and incisive, affectionate and subversive".

The young post incriminating material about themselves and their friends on the net, and regard indiscretion and self-revelation as fun. Their elders could learn from them. If you want to behave badly, accept that you may be found out and if you are, don't make a fuss but try to laugh. With a bit of luck, the public will have forgotten all about your imprudence before the newspaper is wrapped around the fish and chips.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards