Britain's battle over privacy law descends to farce

Reuters News
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Posted: May 23, 2011 9:23 AM
Britain's battle over privacy law descends to farce

By Keith Weir

LONDON (Reuters) - An increasingly farcical game of cat-and-mouse between Britain's media and celebrities, Twitter users and the judiciary prompted Prime Minister David Cameron to promise a review of the country's privacy laws on Monday.

For weeks British media have been fighting the growing use by the rich and famous of "super injunctions" -- English court orders which prevent publication of unwelcome stories and prohibit journalists from even reporting that a ban is in place.

A newspaper in Scotland, which has its own legal system, ran a photograph on Sunday of a top player with an English soccer club over an article calling it "unsustainable" to bar reporters from naming the man identified in hundreds of Twitter postings as among celebrities using court orders to stifle sex scandals.

Rival fans taunted the player during a weekend match, adding to the furor over his efforts to maintain his anonymity.

Cameron, in a television interview, said: "It is rather unsustainable, this situation, where newspapers can't print something that everyone else is clearly talking about.

"The danger is that (court) judgments are effectively writing a sort of new law, which is what parliament is meant to do," he added, laughing off a question about whether he knew which soccer star was at the center of the newspaper row.

Scotland's Herald newspaper on Sunday published a picture of the soccer player, with a black band across his eyes and the word "censored" in capital letters. Scotland has its own legal system, making it harder to pursue the newspaper.

For weeks, English newspapers have responded to bans taken out by a number of celebrities, including other sports stars and actors, by making apparently bland references to them in gossip columns in the knowledge that many readers, having read up on the Internet, will spot the barbed comments behind the stories.

Lawyers representing the player have also asked U.S.-based Twitter via a London court for information about the users of the messaging website who published details of his private life.

Attempts by British celebrities to keep aspects of their private lives secret using strict court orders have been undermined by Twitter users posting allegations on the website.

Politicians have also used parliamentary privilege to disclose that former Royal Bank of Scotland head Fred Goodwin had won a gagging order. Goodwin came under fire for taking a generous pension despite his bank needing a state rescue.

Critics, including a tabloid media that thrives on celebrity gossip and scandal, say courts are being used to stifle freedom of speech and shield the famous from scrutiny. Those in favor of court orders say they protect people's right to privacy.

One of Britain's top judges recommended on Friday that media organizations should be told in advance about applications for gagging orders against them.

Scotland's most senior politician Alex Salmond said on Monday that the Herald should not be pursued by the English courts for publishing the player's photo.

"It looks to me like the English law, English injunctions look increasingly impractical in the modern world," said Salmond, a nationalist who heads Scotland's devolved government.

"It seems that everyone is out of step except the English courts," he told BBC radio.

(Editing by Louise Ireland)