The right of individuals or organisations to prevent journalists reporting on their activities – the rule of prior restraint – has been around for almost as long as newspapers themselves. Injunctions- often served at the last minute – have been viewed as an oppressive form of censorship from the 18th century at least.
More recently, like some legal version of the hospital superbug, the rule of prior restraint has mutated into the super injunction, which prevents journalists from not only publishing sensitive details that would otherwise remain hidden, but from even reporting on the fact that an injunction has been served.
This has led to the alarmingsituation of the Independent newspaper blacking out whole sentences from its front pages (right), creating an image of censorship that reminds starkly of the last years of apartheid South Africa. While the Sunday Herald, and many European papers, have been free to splash the name of the promiscuous athlete without too much fear of retribution. Such a state of affairs makes the law look both clumsy and wrong.
Of course rich celebrities, footballers, politicians and even prominent journalists deserve the luxury of privacy. The desire for privacy is a basic human need. But for our democracy to function as strongly as it always has done so in the UK, freedom of expression should trump the need for privacy in the eyes of the law.
It is heartening, therefore, that the social media site Twitter, and its chorus on users, should defy the growth of the super-injunction in such an successful fashion. The latest estimates are that 900 people an hour are currently defying the ban on revealing the name of the footballer who had an affair with Imogen Thomas, an otherwise forgotten “star” of Big Brother. It is an “I am Spartacus” moment that defies authority and shares the blame across tens of thousands of users. In the process the super injunction is rendered an expensive folly.
It is not our parliament, nor our judges, nor the European courts, nor even journalists, that are currently defending our right to freedom of expression. But hundreds and thousands of internet users who are brave enough to defy the ban.