The myth of privacy law

Bloggers give evidence to Parliament.

Yesterday I went to the parliamentary committee on privacy and injunctions session, and there I heard some worrying things from the MPs and Peers asking the questions. I was one of those supposed to be answering these questions.

Along with myself, the other three bloggers asked to give oral evidence were the indefatigable Richard Wilson, the human rights campaigner who broke the "Trafigura" story, Paul Staines of Guido Fawkes, and Jamie East of the celebrity gossip blog Holy Moly.

(The fact that, of the four of us, only Paul writes regularly about parliamentary matters did not prevent the Independent from saying we were "the faces behind the blogs that Westminster fears".)

The session was a strange experience -- you can watch it here and you can also read Richard's fine account -- but it was also rather revealing.

One can have no idea how much the Lords and MPs learned about blogging and tweeting -- apparently a distinguished parliamentarian looked confused when I mentioned "linking" -- but those watching the session could see that most of the questioners did not really understand the law of privacy. It was also clear that many Lords and MPs did not understand social media.

Repeatedly, the questions contained general references to "privacy law" and tweeters or bloggers "breaking injunctions". But as Paul mentioned rightly, though provocatively, we do not actually have a privacy law in this country. Furthermore, not a single MP or Lord explained how a tweeter or blogger could be in breach of a court order when that blogger or tweeter had not first been put on notice of the terms of that court order.

That we have a general law of "privacy" is indeed a myth. The House of Lords in the case of Wainwright in 2003 held that there is not a free-standing law of privacy in England and Wales. This remains the law of the land. One cannot go to any court or tribunal and obtain a remedy just by mentioning a supposed breach of privacy.

What there is, instead, is a bundle of civil and criminal laws -- abuse of private information, confidentiality, data protection, harassment, and (increasingly) blackmail -- which have been informed and developed by the courts since Human Rights Act 1998 incorporating Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights took effect. But to rely on Article 8 always requires the use of an applicable "cause of action" or a criminal offence. One cannot rely on Article 8 without it.

This is not a merely pedantic point. Without understanding the actual underlying applicable law, it is impossible to grasp why the relevant court orders -- "interim" (that is, temporary until full trial) injunctions and "final" injunctions -- are granted. An interim injunction is there to preserve the rights of the parties until a trial can take place and the matter be disposed of. But the issue with private or confidential information, and with legally privileged information, is that once it is publicised then any further legal action is futile. What should be protected has escaped from its bottle and cannot be returned.

Indeed, it is factually correct that parliament did expressly enact a law of privacy. The laws relevant to privacy -- especially the tort of misuse of private information -- have been developed significantly by the Courts in the eleven years since the Human Rights Act took full effect in 2000. And there is nothing inherently wrong with this; is it what courts do in common law jurisdictions. Those who say that we should not have a "judge-made" law of privacy because we already have a law of libel miss the point that libel is as much a common law tort as the misuse of information.

Parliament also never enacted a law of defamation, or of contract, or of negligence, or of confidentiality, or of trusts. Even certain criminal offences such as murder have a judge-made common law basis. It is open to parliament to abolish or amend such common law, but to object to any law on the simple basis that it is "judge-made" is to show ignorance of just how much of the substantive law of England and Wales also has no ultimate basis in any parliamentary statute.

Nonetheless, the fundamental question before the Joint Committee is what intervention, if any, can legislation make to deal with the illiberal use of privacy and other injunctions. It is not for parliament to make particular decisions on court applications, nor is it for parliament to make court orders in individual cases. Parliament may abolish or amend the new common law tort of misuse of private information (or abolish or repeal other laws), and it may provide a statutory procedural framework for the courts to follow when presented with an application by an aggrieved party. But MPs and Lords cannot usurp the role of a judge in individual cases, and nor should they.

Of all the distinguished parliamentarians who asked questions yesterday, only Elfyn Lloyd MP seemed to get this, asking about speeding up the time between interim hearings and final disposal. Almost all the other committee members just spoke generally -- and vaguely -- about "privacy law" and "breaching injunctions". Worryingly, few questions showed the MPs and Lords had any detailed knowledge of the law which they are considering.

Just as worrying was the simple lack of awareness of how social media operates. MPs talked loftily of "regulating" Twitter but without any real idea of how such regulation would actually work, what mechanisms could be adopted, and how any sanctions would be enforced. A politician saying something should be regulated (or "banned") does not act like some magic spell rendering such envisaged regulation (or prohibition) effective. One suspects parliamentarians do not yet realise that there is now a form of instant worldwide communication which is quite beyond the control of them; and indeed almost anyone else.

In all this, one crucial fact lingers about the relationship between social media, privacy, and the breaking of so-called "super-injunctions". Any breaches which have so far occurred were not actually instigated by tweeters or bloggers. The breaches were by parliamentarians, or by those working in the mainstream media. All that tweeters and bloggers did was to then circulate and publish the respective information which had been leaked by others. This is not to justify such circulation and publication, but it is to state what actually happened.

In respect of "super-injunctions" and social media, the proverbial stable doors have so far always been opened by others.

 

Read the "Uncorrected Transcript" here

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman and author of the Jack of Kent blog.

His legal journalism has included popularising the Simon Singh libel case and discrediting the Julian Assange myths about his extradition case.  His uncovering of the Nightjack email hack by the Times was described as "masterly analysis" by Lord Justice Leveson.

David is also a solicitor and was successful in the "Twitterjoketrial" appeal at the High Court.

(Nothing on this blog constitutes legal advice.)

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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.