Should judges help the rich and famous gag the press?

Times gag order

A new injunction preventing anyone in the world gossiping about a celebrity affair has the media spitting tacks

BY Tim Edwards LAST UPDATED AT 13:35 ON Thu 21 Apr 2011

In the past week, judges have handed out four gagging orders against newspapers wanting to print tales of celebrity adultery and 'romps'. They bring the total number of press gagging orders since 2008 to more than 30 - and the press is furious.

On Tuesday, three High Court judges granted an injunction to "a married man working in the entertainment industry" who had conducted an affair with a female colleague.

When the affair was discovered in April 2010, the man vowed to make his marriage work, and said he would prefer "in an ideal word not to have to see her [his lover] at all". Eight months later, she was dismissed from her job.

According to Lord Justice Ward, the News of the World wanted "to publish the fact of the affair and that the affair was the real cause of [the female colleague] leaving her employment".

The gagging order, which was supported by the man's wife and his lover, was granted against the publication of "private information". One reason given was that the man's children might be subjected to playground bullying.

The gagging order comes in the wake of two other recent injunctions granted in favour of a Premier League footballer and a "leading actor".  

Yesterday, the stakes were raised when Mr Justice Eady slapped a permanent 'contra mundum' ('against the world') injunction on intimate photographs taken of a TV star with a woman who had allegedly used the images to try to blackmail the celebrity, according to the Daily Mail.

The contra mundum, which basically prevents any discussion of the allegations online or in any part of the world in perpetuity, has provoked a new level of outrage from the press, with the Daily Telegraph, among others, pointing out that such orders were until now reserved for the likes of child killers Jon Venables and Robert Thompson to protect them from vigilantes.

Newspaper editors fear that judges, lawyers and rich celebrities are cobbling together a de facto privacy law in England and Wales. But should judges be gagging the press on behalf of the rich and famous?

no - this is a de facto law to protect the rich

The Times publishes a very strong article (photographed above) about the Premier League footballer in which details are blacked out. The paper's legal editor Frances Gibb writes: "If you go to the Royal Courts of Justice these days, there is barely a sniff of open justice; court doors are closed and cases listed outside are mentioned only in code... Even if those make any sense - and even to the media they usually do not - then the court doors are likely to be firmly shut."

In the Daily Mail, Stephen Glover finds it unbelievable that a judge could think that a man having an affair with a co-worker should be entitled to expect his colleagues not to gossip about it. "This implies an extraordinary curtailment of our freedom to discuss one another's virtues and vices," he says.

Meanwhile, PR guru Max Clifford tells PA that there is now a privacy law that wasn't brought in by Parliament: "Sometimes the privacy of the rich and famous - or anyone - does deserve to be protected but only the rich can afford this so it's purely a law to protect the rich and in a democracy that's not right."

yes - but gagging orders won't work

David Aaronovitch is almost a solitary voice, writing in the Times that he disagrees with his own newspaper: "I don't agree with The Times. I don't think it's anyone's business what folks do in bedrooms if it's consensual and legal. I agree with their lordships..."

But hold on. Aaronovitch believes that gagging orders are "doomed". Why? Because we are hypocrites who love gossip and help to spread it. Besides, Aaronovitch claims to have found the identities of three "celebrity injunctors" after 15 minutes of Googling combined with a little general knowledge.

WHY RESTRICT GAGGING ORDERS TO THE WORLD?
Liberal Democrat MP John Hemming, an opponent of privacy injunctions, hopes the "ker-ching of the lawyers' cash tills... will also be heard in the House of Commons and that there will be questions about what is happening". In the meantime, he has a challenge for the justices: "I am surprised the judge limited himself to silencing the world. Why not the whole Solar System?" · 

For further concise, balanced comment and analysis on the week's news, try The Week magazine. Subscribe today and get 6 issues completely free.