British PM blasts 'unsustainable' gagging orders

23rd May 2011, Comments 0 comments

Prime Minister David Cameron weighed in Monday on an escalating row over Britain's privacy laws, saying it was "unsustainable" to impose gagging orders on newspapers only for them to be breached online.

He was responding to the case of a married British footballer who has used the courts to keep details of an alleged affair secret, but who has been identified by thousands of users of microblogging site Twitter.

The High Court in London has banned the media from identifying him, but a Scottish newspaper broke ranks Sunday and published his photograph, saying it would not continue withholding the name while it was easily obtainable online.

In an interview with ITV on Monday, Cameron indicated that he knew the identity of the footballer "like everybody else".

He acknowledged: "It's not fair on the newspapers if all the social media can report this and the newspapers can't, so the law and the practice has got to catch up with how people consume media today."

The prime minister added: "It is rather unsustainable, this situation, where newspapers can't print something that everyone else is clearly talking about.

"But there's a difficulty here because the law is the law and the judges must interpret what the law is."

Scotland's Sunday Herald was the first British newspaper or broadcaster to name the player who allegedly had an affair with reality television star Imogen Thomas. In court documents he is only referred to as "CTB".

It argued that the High Court's jurisdiction was limited to England and Wales, but also said the situation was "unsustainable" and "unfair".

The rest of the British media continued to abide by the ruling on Monday but many commentators voiced their frustration that it remained in place.

The footballer is taking legal action to force Twitter to reveal the identity of users who broke the gagging order, his lawyers said on Friday, but the action appears only to have caused more debate online.

"I think the government, parliament has got to take some time out, have a proper look at this, have a think about what we can do, but I'm not sure there is going to be a simple answer," Cameron said.

He suggested one solution may be to strengthen the Press Complaints Commission, the body which enforces the media's voluntary code of conduct, so people use that route to defend their privacy rather than the courts.

One of his ministers was expected to update parliament on the issue later.

Last week, Britain's two top judges argued that the courts are simply enforcing the privacy laws set out in the 1998 Human Rights Act, which enshrined the European Convention on Human Rights in British law.

And last week, while presenting a major review of injunctions, they warned lawmakers to think twice before using their right of unrestricted freedom of speech in parliament to undermine the injunctions.

On Thursday, a member of the House of Lords revealed that Fred Goodwin, the former boss of the bailed-out Royal Bank of Scotland, had won an injunction banning publication of details of an alleged affair with a colleague.

The High Court subsequently quashed the anonymity order that had been protecting him.

The row meanwhile threatens to turn into a political storm if, as reports suggest, Attorney General Dominic Grieve tries to take legal action against the Sunday Herald for breaching the High Court ruling.

Alex Salmond, first minister in the devolved administration in Scotland, said it would be "extremely foolish" politically to try to extend the reach of English law north of the border.

He added: "It looks to me like English law and English injunctions are increasingly impractical in the modern world."

A spokesman for the attorney general said: "He hasn't received any complaints or referrals from any parties or by any court."

© 2011 AFP

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