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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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder