Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson, the most successful football manager in British history, has always cultivated a siege mentality among his players. No-one else will do us any favours: the only people we can rely on are each other. We will take on the rest of the world, if we have to.
There is something of the same mentality exhibited in the attempts by Sir Alex’s most celebrated player, Ryan Giggs, to close down discussion of an alleged extra-marital affair with a reality TV contestant, discussion both in print and online.
Injunctions in the name of privacy have been served on the tabloid newspapers that make a living out of celebrity infidelities, depriving the woman in the affair of the right to disclose the details for which newspapers will pay. She is reduced to pouting pneumatically for their photographers, seizing her moment in the public eye. Leo Benedictus’ novel “The Afterparty” captures the sense:
“Hacking out her path to privilege through the overgrown feelings of men. And did she realise that she was nothing here? Ripe fruit in a glut. Destined soon to rot or be devoured.”
But Ryan Giggs’ lawyers have proved futile against the tens of thousands of people with accounts on Twitter. Feeble puns and jokes about him have spread across the internet like knotweed, his exploits serenaded by fans at football matches.
And he is not the only celebrity to make the attempt. It is reported that there have in fact been several dozen privacy injunctions granted to applicants whose names cannot therefore be published. In one, in a separate but similar case, an actor has obtained an injunction contra mundum, literally against the world. But in most contests against the world, the world wins.
In one sense, this is a very traditional scenario. There was a fashion in the 18th century for the publication of scandalous allegations about public figures, anonymously. The vitiation of the individual’s right to redress against defamation led to the requirement that all printed publications carry the name and address of the printer and publisher, which you will find in the small print at the bottom of every leaflet. This makes Twitter a throwback, rather than a new frontier.
But looked at another way, it represents something very new. First, there is the spread of the ability to publish. Technology has given many more people the opportunity to talk to many more people. The position of the media within the cosy political hierarchy is now in question: the new communicators are coming from outside the elite.
And secondly, being the reason why this issue belongs on this blog, there is the challenge to territoriality. An injunction can be meaningfully served on a newspaper that is printed and distributed in England, but is it possible to exert similar controls on a website that is hosted abroad? Such a website is just as accessible to readers in England as a site hosted in England might be. Do you know where this blog is hosted? I don’t, and I write for it. The shutters of territoriality have been forced open.
As a result, it is becoming increasingly difficult to defend the notion of privacy in one country, if there is somewhere else in the world where that privacy can be breached. It is an unreal prospect of chasing around the globe, filing court actions in every jurisdiction where a website might say that a footballer slept with a model.
In the old nation state view of the world, the role and the meaning of national borders are paramount. But the spread of new technologies is rendering those borders meaningless and revealing how much of our national life they shaped and restricted. For the real outrage over privacy injunctions relates not to footballers and TV personalities (who is surprised?) but when they are used to cover up the actions of politicians and businesses that they do not want us to know about. If the demise of national borders leads to more openness and accountability to the public, that is to be welcomed (and to a federalist, is no surprise).