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I was back on BBC Radio Leeds this morning: on the breakfast show to talk about superinjunctions and twitter. You can hear it here. I am on at 8.10am
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.
I’ve always thought that the libel lawyers Carter-Ruck sounded like a euphemism or, perhaps, a piece of forgotten cockney rhyming slang. Anyway, I’m delighted that they have dropped their attempt to prevent the British media from reporting on the proceedings of parliament. It is, in part, a victory for the chorus of twitterers that defied the ban yesterday. Only hours after the ruling was announced the full report as made available on Wikileaks and transmitted across the internet by hundreds of users of the microblogging site Twitter. Carter-Ruck, acting on behalf of the oil firm Trafigura, were attempting to prevent the Guardian reporting on a question tabled on Monday by the Labour MP Paul Farrelly.
The rule of prior restraint has been gaining ground in recent years, despite misgivings from European Court of Human Rights, as judges seem more willing to allow last moment injunctions against the publication of exposes. But the kind of injunction used on Monday (a so-called super-injunction) not only prevents publication, but also makes the injunction itself secret. It is a type of censorship that recalls Apartheid-era South Africa, when newspaper editors were not allowed to leave pages blank or blacked-out when they had been censored by the government.
Interviewed in the Guardian, Ian Hislop, the editor of Private Eye, said:
“The injunction against the Guardian publishing questions to ministers tabled by the Labour MP Paul Farrelly is an example of a chill wind blowing more widely through the press. In increasing numbers, aggressive lawyers, who used to use libel law to protect their clients, are now using injunctions to secure privacy and confidentiality. They have found it is a legal technique which shuts stories down very quickly so that now it is not a question of publish and be damned, as it used to be: we are now finding that we can’t even publish at all.”
The latest Time Magazine reports on the the way that US publishers are picking up on the trend with books like Not Quite what I was Planning: Six Word Memoirs by Writers Famous and Obscure. I’m not sure if less is really more, but their is something witty in the six word music reviews of Paul Ford of the Morning News. He describes British Sea Power as “Quite catchy. But likely precious live,” which is incredibly to the point and the Pidgeon Detectives as “they’re big in Britain of course”.
The London stage, famous for its verbose reviewing, has its own micro-critic. Devon Dudgeon reviews London theatre to an even tighter wordcount of five words. Here’s what she wrote about last summer’s performance of Grand Theft Impro at the Wheatsheaf:
“Performers’ laughter exceeded the audience’s.”
Reuters: Bearing Witness, five years of the Iraq War / Guardian Comment is Free: Hans Blix on why the War in Iraq was UTTER FOLLY / Guardian Arts Blog: Jonathan Glancey: A £50 hand-powered laptop? Amazing / Ars Technica: Twitter breaks down barriers in the classroom / Atlantic: Michael Beirut on Stanley Kubrick’s favourite font / NY Times: A city that sat on its treasures: the modern tragedy of Le Corbousier’s Chandigarh