Newspapers in the United Kingdom rushed to put Manchester United star Ryan Giggs on the front page this morning. Until yesterday afternoon, they were forbidden by British law from doing so because of a gag order, or super-injunction, Giggs acquired last week in order to quell rumors about his alleged affair with reality TV star Imogen Thomas. In the present-day reality of social media inevitabilities, however, Giggs' attempt keeping the world quiet about his affair produced the opposite effect. The Streisand Effect may need a new name.
Giggs' case is just the latest in a series of controversies over Britain's super-injunction laws. Similar to gagging orders in the United States, super-injunctions prohibit the press from reporting on certain events in the name of the safety or well-being of parties named. Breaking the super-injunction bears legal consequences for media outlets like newspapers, but the law has so far overlooked social media. When Member of Parliament John Hemming disclosed the footballer's name on the floor of the House of Commons yesterday making the super-injunction more or less void, the media blasted Giggs' name into headlines within moments. As Prime Minister David Cameron declared on morning television, social media proved current British media laws to be "rather unsustainable where newspapers can’t print something everyone else is talking about."
The controversy can be traced back to a popular uprising of sorts on Twitter. Last week, Manchester United player Ryan Giggs attempted to hide behind a super-injunction in order to protect himself from former Big Brother contestant Imogen Thomas. The two apparently had an affair and Giggs obtained the super-injunction after Thomas allegedly threatened to blackmail him for between £50,000 and £100,000 for her silence. The court granted him the super-injunction, but folks Twitter caught wind of the whole affair and started tweeting about it. Giggs sues Twitter. Hell breaks loose. (For future reference, England, if you want people on Twitter not to talk about something, the absolute worst thing you could do is sue Twitter in order to gag their users.)
This Twitter suit is just latest shakeup over super-injunction legislation this year. In April, Private Eye editor Ian Hislop lobbied successfully for the publication of an interview with BBC journalist Andrew Marr that revealed Marr's extramarital affairs and, more scandalously, the extent to which he went to cover up the details. (It's scandalous because Marr harshly and hypocritically covered politicians doing the exact same thing.) Two weeks ago, MP John Hemming revealed another case involving Royal Bank of Scotland chief Fred Goodwin. Hemming has been working on updating injunction laws declaring how this year's rash of scandals, "shows the utter absurdity of what is being done in the courts. It ignores the way that modern communication works.
Many critics of the current super-injunction laws criticize the members of Parliament lobbying for new regulations to be placed on social media. They liken the redaction of names and details to government-sponsored censorship, and are launching widespread campaigns to exploit loopholes, reports to the Daily Mail, are Catching on to the trend, Facebook and Twitter users have noticed that the laws are outdated and are exploiting them. Newspapers in the U.K. are now doing the same. Yesterday, the Scottish newspaper Sunday Herald found a loophole in injunction laws and legally published a photo of Giggs with a slim black line that read "Censored" obscuring his eyes. Based on a recent judiciary report, critics may have a case. The committee of judges who compiled the report say "there was justifiable concern [last year] ... that superinjunctions were being applied for and granted far too readily."
Which brings us back to British law. In the United States, we're having a hard enough time figuring out digital rights and privacy in the face of social media. And our country's laws are all less than 250 years old! In the United Kingdom, where legislation dates back to the signing of the Magna Carta in 1215, it should come as no surprise that they're having a harder time.