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Peter Thiel vs Gawker: a new way for rich men to control the media

Whatever the rights and wrongs of the case, we should be worried when money men are attempting to punish the media from behind closed doors.  

By Barbara Speed

Peter Thiel, co-founder of PayPal, is a man with a lot of money. Billions of dollars of it, in fact. He’s also a great philanthropist and thinker, who has invested his money in the development of ArtificiaI Intelligence, Facebook, and various gay rights organisations.

But one of his less salubrious hobby horses, it emerged this week, was a long-running quest to wreak revenge on a media company. In 2007, a gay writer for Gawker media “outed” Thiel by announcing in the headline of a post: “Peter Thiel is totally gay, people”. Ever since, it seems, Thiel has been looking for a way to give Gawker an eye for an eye – and he found it in the unlikely figure of professional wrestler Hulk Hogan.

So what exactly happened? 

Until earlier this week, this is what we knew: Hulk Hogan sued Gawker Media for invasion of privacy after it published his sex tape online, and a Florida judge awarded him a jaw-drapping $140m in damages. 

But then, following questions in court during an appeal, Gawker discovered that the lawsuit had been bankrolled by Peter Thiel, a name never before connected with the case. In an interview on Wednesday, Thiel said: “It’s less about revenge and more about specific deterrence.” 

What does this mean for the media? 

Whatever your feelings about Gawker, it’s clear that lawsuits secretly funded by aggrieved billionaires aren’t the ideal deterrent. Dealing with breaches of privacy should be down to the courts, or even an independent press commission. The punishment should fit the crime – not the whims of a tech magnate. 

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It’s often decried that most of the media around the world is owned and run by rich business owners. Yet the fact that this is widely known acts as something of a deterrant for the likes of Rupert Murdoch – he knows not to exert too much open editorial control over the Times, for example, for fear it would lose its reputation as a reasonably objective source of news. 

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But Thiel is different: he was attempting to exert control from behind closed doors, through quiet donations to a media company’s antagonist. That’s not to say that Hogan wasn’t right to sue for the infringement to his privacy – but a legal system where this must be funded by angry, moneyed third parties in secret is clearly a broken one. 

Would it have made a difference to the case if we’d known its backer earlier?

While you can ask questions about financial backing in court, Professor Mary Anne Franks from the University of Miami Law School  told the New York Times that “finding out who bankrolled it doesn’t help you at all”. Nobody is suggesting that the revelation should change the outcome of the Hogan case. 

Who is the victim here?

A little surprisingly, Thiel clearly sees himself as the underdog in all this. He has described the case as “fighting back” and called Gawker a “terrible bully”  – though of course, those who are libelled without millions in the bank can’t do much about it. Thiel is unique in his ability to bully back.

If the case does act as a deterrant to journalists crossing the line of acceptability, then this is a good outcome. But I predict it will have a chilling effect on reporting of public figures with cash and power, rather than protecting the rest of us. Thiel and Hogan are public figures, and their power and influence is demonstrated in the case’s outcome – and the fact it made it to court at all.