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23 May 2011updated 17 Jan 2012 7:04am

The weekend Twitter mocked the English Courts

What will be the effects of the CTB case?

By David Allen Green

Last Friday afternoon, when news was first emerging that a further claim had been lodged at the High Court in the CTB privacy case, I got on the phone to who I believed was the claimant’s law firm.

I explained that I was from the New Statesman and that I wanted to do a quick post clarifying the exact nature of the reported legal action. Unfortunately, the press officer was “unavailable”. I kept trying, but at around seven I was told that he had now “left the office for the day”.

However, unlike press officers, Twitter does not leave the office for the day or go home for the weekend. Instead, sometimes rightly and sometimes wrongly, it can generate incredible and immediate communicative power. And it did so. Thousands of Twitter users spent the weekend mocking CTB, the Courts, and the whole notion of an injunction being used to protect personal privacy.

In many ways, this was not a pleasant spectacle. The privacy injunction had been granted, at least in part, because it had seemed to the High Court that the claimant was being blackmailed. It may well be that the anonymised injunction would not have been given but for the appearance of blackmail.

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Of course, few, if any of the Twitter users — and the tabloid journalists cheering them on — paused for a moment to realise that all they were doing was circumventing an injunction which had been primarily granted to prevent a possible criminal act from succeeding. Indeed, the High Court’s concerns about blackmail were conveniently not mentioned by anyone, if people were aware of them at all.

It was also depressing to see the sheer enthusiasm with which Twitter users served the commercial interests of the tabloid press in further weakening what little privacy law we have in the United Kingdom. This is the same tabloid press which casually disregarded for a decade the laws on phone hacking and data protection, and the same tabloid press who routinely toy with contempt of court in demonising potential suspects in murder cases. And now, the only legal restraint which actually worked — the temporary (or “interim”) injunction pending full trial in a privacy case — may have been irrevocably trashed. We really do get the popular press we deserve.

However, facts are facts, and Twitter has gleefully shown the impotence of an injunction of the High Court granted because of concerns of blackmail. That is the reality of the situation; but the effects of this are not yet clear.

Will the High Court now see merely anonymised injunctions as pointless, knowing that the tabloids will try and prompt Twitter into serving its interests over some other weekend? If so, will this mean tougher injunctions on stricter terms? Or will the purveyors of “reputation management” see the futility of such injunctions and not advise that their clients should apply for them?

Whatever the outcome, the environment for the practical legal protection for personal privacy has changed. This may not necessarily be for the better.

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman and a media lawyer.