In case you failed to notice, a revolution has just happened. It happened in Britain but its after-effects will be felt globally. It started out rather trivially – the sort of stuff that you would normally expect to be gossip today and forgotten tomorrow. It was the story of a philandering footballer’s ex-marital relationship with a Reality TV star. About as banal as you can get – or so you might think.
That all changed when the footballer decided to take legal action to prevent the story being printed in the British newspapers. The newspapers were told that they could only identify the footballer using the (apparently meaningless) initials, CTB. In theory, ordinary members of the British public were also covered by the gagging order. But many of them took no notice and pretty soon tens of thousands of tweets identified the footballer as Ryan Giggs. This widespread public disobedience caused some confusion in the British legal profession. If so many tweeters were ignoring the law, what was to be done?
Probably the most stupid thing that could possibly be done was to try to take legal action against Twitter itself. And that, indeed, is what Giggs’s legal team did next. They wanted to take on the American-based Twitter using British law. It was obviously never going to work. There was even serious discussion of the possibility of taking legal action against the 30,000 Twitter users (that number was rapidly to increase) who had revealed Giggs’s idenity.
If this idea was not already comically absurd, it became even more ludicrous after a Scottish newspaper (not covered by the English injunction, apparently) printed a full-page picture of Giggs on the front page with the word ‘censored’ stamped over his eyes (see above). By now, Giggs’s affair was known by ordinary people the length and breath of Britain and much further afield. For example, this was the view from Taiwan...
By now only the English newspapers and broadcasters were still referring to Giggs as the “unnamed footballer”. Everybody knew who they were talking about but the newspapers weren’t allowed to use his name. Until, finally, on the afternoon of the 23rd of May, 2011, a Liberal-Democrat MP, John Hemming, named Giggs in Parliament. It is an odd quirk of British law that MPs are free to say in Parliament what you or I (or indeed they) would be prosecuted for saying outside of Parliament.
John Hemming said: "With about 75,000 people having named Ryan Giggs on Twitter it is obviously impracticable to imprison them all.”
Once an MP says something in Parliament, the British Press are free to report what he says. So, by the end of the day, even the BBC was stating that the (alleged) secret love-rat footballer was none other than Ryan Giggs. Ironically, the affair which he had taken so much effort (and paid so much money!) to keep a secret had become the best-known affair in Britain.
The attitude of the British judiciary to the problems posed by Twitter has been one of the most fascinating aspects of this case. A few hours prior to Giggs’s name being revealed in Parliament, the High Court judge Mr Justice Eady rejected an application from The Sun newspaper to be allowed to name Giggs. The Sun had claimed that his identity was already so widely known that attempting to keep it secret any longer was “futile”. Mr Justice Eady was not of that opinion, saying: “It is fairly obvious that wall-to-wall excoriation in national newspapers is likely to be significantly more intrusive and distressing for those concerned than the availability of information on the internet.”
A couple of days ago, on BBC Radio I heard a similar view from a lawyer who seemed to think that relatively few people got their news via the Internet, those who did tended not to believe it and, as for Twitter, well, whatever that was, it was pretty insignificant.
I think by now even members of the UK Judiciary must be waking up to the fact that the Internet is a far more powerful medium of communication than any of the long-established newspapers which they may happen to read on their way to work. The Giggs affair may have started trivially but it has now become a powerful symbol of the changed world in which we live. Twitter, Facebook, Forums and Blogs may have been a potent factor in the uprisings we’ve seen in Middle Eastern countries this year. But they are also bringing about significant (if less obviously dramatic) changes to the way in which Western democracies operate. Like it or loathe it, the judges, journalists and celebrity philanderers are going to have to learn to live with it.