Why super-injunctions are good

Submitted by Matthew on 18 May, 2011 - 10:19

It is rare to find an issue that unites all of the press — left, right and centre. Still harder when that issue is considered controversial, involving complex moral and legal issues. How then to explain the unanimity of the press? The matter under discussion is the use of so-called “super-injunctions” to prevent the publication of sex scandal stories involving celebrities.

The daily diet of the British tabloids is stodgy with tales of which premiership footballer slept with which model and which C-list soap star is having it off with which “Big Brother” housemate. Hence the outrage that they can be “gagged” by the courts.

But the problem with premiership footballers, famous actors and performers is that they are rich and can call on great resources when they are desperate to defend their reputations or hold their relationships and families together under the strain of infidelity. Although they are victims of tabloid culture, they are also one of the very few social groups powerful enough to prevent the papers from printing exactly what they want regardless of the consequences.

According to the Telegraph, at least 80 celebrities have obtained what that paper calls “gagging orders” in British courts over the last six years.

Does any of this matter to socialists? The way in which this debate is being framed encourages us to think of it as a conflict between free speech and freedom of the press on the one hand and the power of the rich and famous on the other. All other things being equal, a libertarian socialist would be for the right of the press to print stories irrespective of whether we agree with them or are comfortable with the content.

The Mirror emphasised this side of the debate with a survey showing that “eight out of 10 people believe the use of ‘super-injunctions’ against the press shows there is one law for the rich, another for the rest of us.” It turns out that the survey was paid for by the Mirror! Nonetheless, they are sure that the result will “fuel the furore over the gagging orders which wealthy celebrities use to hide their indiscretions”.

I don’t have the breadth and diversity of friends that would keep me in touch with all of the feelings of readers of the Sun, Mirror and Telegraph, but I get around a bit most weeks and I haven’t detected any furore at all about super-injunctions.

On a personal level I would like to see many, many more court orders preventing the publication of accounts of the sexual indiscretions of celebrities. Their privacy would be protected and, no matter how rich, I think they have rights too. But that would not be the only gain. It might also mean that some of these celebrities will get less casual sex than they do now!

If there was little chance of selling salacious (though usually tired and predictable) details to the press that would be a good thing. These stories are “bread and circuses” of the worst kind, demeaning their readers almost as much as their victims. They, and celebrity gossip in general, have been a huge factor in the evolution of a mass newspaper market which barely deals in news and politics at all.

There is nothing natural or inevitable about this evolution. I was brought up in a council house by working-class parents neither of whom had an education beyond 16. Newspapers were, nevertheless, a sacred part of every day and silence descended on our front room when the news came on the TV or radio. It may not have been a typical household on our estate, but it wasn’t particularly rare either. Interest in the world is as likely and can be as enthusiastic in working-class homes as in those of the wealthy and more privileged or formally educated.

In recent decades newspapers produced for the mass market have moved decisively downmarket. The replacement of news by celebrity scandal is a significant factor in disarming and sedating our class. And it is this exclusion of our class from politics — much more than freedom of the press — that is at stake in this debate.

And the broadsheet press, which itself occasionally dips a voyeuristic toe into celeb culture, is entirely comfortable with a class division of labour within which they provide serious news to the people who need it while the rest make do with comics.

The serious case that they make against injunctions — that they can be used by big corporations to block stories about corrupt practices — could be taken care of by a far better, clearer law.

You can see how much the British press really values free speech by observing their reaction to the breaching of court orders on Twitter, social networks and blogs.

Anarchy! they cry. Let us print this stuff or it will get out but in the most unreliable and damaging way.

What worries them is that rumours and gossip are circulated without the chance for anyone to profit by it. What is the point of paying reporters to collect dirt only to find it published by freelance gossips on platforms they do not control and from which they cannot profit?

I would like to think that the future of celebrity gossip is to be published that way so that it becomes indecipherable noise which no-one listens to properly.

As ever the media barons are less interested in genuine press freedom than in maintaining their power to shape what is considered news and what is judged to be in the “public interest”. The fact that there is a challenge to this agenda, even if it comes from some wealthy footballers and actors, is on the whole a good thing.

Comments

Submitted by Mark on Fri, 20/05/2011 - 09:29

OK, SW is crass. They lump the rich into one block.
But aren't you lumping the whole press into one reactionary block?
The press is not undifferentiated. There is some investigative journalism out there. It is true that a superinjunction was used to protect the capitalists who dumped chemicals in Ivory Coast.

Submitted by AWL on Fri, 20/05/2011 - 13:11

A lie, as has often been observed, can twice circumnavigate our credulous globe before the truth has even got its shoes on. As long as this remains true the hacks, quacks, priests and lawyers will always have one up on the rest of us. Socialists can confront this inevitability with the good old troika of education, agitation and organisation, each in their way a firm shove in the direction of the one big truth in capitalist society: irreconcilable class hostility. A course of action that will achieve absolutely nothing of this kind is Pat Murphy's suggestion that we should back the right of rich judges to prevent rich press barons from revealing the sexual adventures of rich celebrities.

Murphy anticipates the objection that access to injunctions is determined by the ability to afford them without, as far as I can see, answering it. No matter, it is actually a secondary issue: suppose (and good luck with this by the way) that wealth ceased to be the decisive factor in obtaining a gagging order; an authoritarian law based on the principle that it is the state that should define the public interest with regard to the press remains just that regardless of who invokes it, it is also quite a hostage to fortune from a revolutionary point of veiw. The trashiness of the British press (which is hardly something new, as the ancient foreign reporter's standby "Anyone here been raped and speaks English?" suggests) is not the relevant background for this discussion. Is it not just as likely that the sombre, didactic sheets that Murphy remembers were forced into being that way by the long process of heroic self education which several generations of British working-class people bequethed their successors and that the supposed subsequent decline into shit was as a result of the defeat and shattering of that class and its institutions than vice versa?

The salient backdrop against which the recent trend has occured is, unbelievably, ommitted entirely by Murphy. Britain is currently known throughout the world for the bredth and depth of what simply cannot be reported or opined in the newspapers; whether it is the significant international industry sustained by the libel laws or the often hilarious but always sinister manifestations of "official secrecy", those who have an interest in silence and can afford the fleet of lawyers are never short of the means to keep the truth fumbling with its laces. The injunction phenomenon is simply another arrow in the quiver.

Since the Russian revolution and then the Transitional Program it has been a revolutionary demand that the bosses "open the books", the better for their liquidation. This recognises the eternal utility of secrecy to power and censorship to the state. A "better, clearer" censor's charter is not a working class demand: "don't trust the capitalists with your liberties, freedom of speech!" is. Socialists and even principled liberals should respond to the evident conflict between the famous and horny (who Murpey thinks will have LESS sex as a result of being able to hush it up) and the paper proprietors (who have, gasp, been known, on occasion, to commission their own opinion polls) by demanding, as a bare minimum, an end to official censorship and a guarentee on freedom of speech equal to that of the first ammendment to the American Constitution. Only then will we be able to properly expose the hypocracy of the media moguls by showing just how little they care about liberty, and just how much we do.

Robert Fox, Oxford

Submitted by Bruce on Fri, 20/05/2011 - 15:36

Just after reading these comments I turned on the news to hear a string of senior judges attacking MPs right to use Parliamentary privilege to name people involved in these cases when an injunction has been granted. This does seem to me to be a logical extension of the use of these super-injunctions to silence any discussion of a particular event. Nobody not directly involved in the case - including MPs - will then be able to question whether the judges were right to grant an injunction or not as they will have no means of knowing about or raising it. This can then be used to remove entire areas from free speech as long as lawyers can convince a judge that it is necessary.

I agree with most of the criticisms of this article. Pat wrote "All other things being equal, a libertarian socialist would be for the right of the press to print stories irrespective of whether we agree with them or are comfortable with the content." That is right and seems to me to be the guiding principle we should apply here. This was the principle Socialist Organiser defended when we fought Vanessa Redgrave and the WRP's attempt to silence us in the 80s. (In the course of the case it became clear that much left wing polemic would fall foul of a strict interpretation of the laws of libel.:)) But Pat totally fails to show why other things aren't equal in the cases he discusses - perhaps because, hoist by his own petard, he cannot do so without discussing the actual content of the cases which are subject to the injunctions.

It seems to me that the right to privacy (which I think needs to be qualified in any case) can be balanced legally against free speech by a broad but strict interpretation defined in law of "public interest", which could serve to draw a line between trivial and intrusive tabloid celebrity bollocks and cases like Trafigura. Martin's suggestion to criminalise libel seems to me crazy. It would leave the way open for the state to prosecute all sorts of material they wished not to be published. The only sensible way to equalise things financially is by a massive extension of legal aid to cover libel.

Submitted by Matthew on Sat, 21/05/2011 - 10:22

"The only sensible way to equalise things financially is by a massive extension of legal aid to cover libel."

Or we could just abolish the libel laws. The First Amendment to the US Constitution guaranteeing free speech means the ability to sue for libel there is much more restricted, which is of course why plaintiffs head for Britain to make their claims. Socialists would defend the First Amendement and indeed the rest of the Bill of Rights so by logical extension we should be for the abolition of the libel laws (whether you have a privacy law is another question).

In a situation without libel laws, an individual who thought that the press had reported something untruthful about them could simply issue a statement denying the claim or refuse to comment. Indeed, much of the publicity in high-profile libel cases (and now with super-injunctions) is generated not by the stories themselves - replaced in the public mind by the next week's "celebrity revelations" - but the insistence of those who claim to have been wronged (Aitken, Archer, the Hamiltons, Tommy Sheridan etc.) on dragging the issue through the courts.

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