Through the Keyhole: Injunctions Have the Tabloids Up in Arms, Writes Stephen Abell, Director of the PCC. but as Max Mosley Discovered, the Law Can't Control the Press

Article excerpt

Privacy is out in the open once more. Media people tend to dramatise subjects that affect them the most, and there will always be a hint of special pleading about how reporting restrictions are discussed. But it cannot be denied that many have been rightly exercised about, say, injunctions and the power of Twitter, or Max Mosley and his relentless - if perhaps understandable - drive to stop tabloid intrusions by changing the law. The Press Complaints Commission entered the fray when, on 10 May, it upheld a complaint against the Telegraph for the "disproportionately intrusive" covert recording of the Lib Dem cabinet minister Vince Cable. This is all important, and relevant, stuff.

As director of the PCC, I welcome the chance to discuss how we deal with this messy, tricky topic. We have just published our annual review-see pcc.org.uk/reviewio - which shows how we help those who find themselves, however briefly, in the public eye.

One basic lesson from this document is that privacy matters to people. It was not that long ago that Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg was implying that the rise of social networking might mean that privacy would cease to be a "social norm". The thinking was that we would be so familiar with, and desensitised to, the free exchange of information that we would live our lives more openly as a result. This always had the feel of airy utopianism.

What seems to have happened is that people have not lost interest in privacy, butrather have a better sense of what it means in practice. Most people put some of their personal information on the internet (through social networking, or website comments) and consequently have a greater sense of ownership. The ease with which information can be circulated by others can become an object of fear.

Showing our teeth

At the PCC, we see this when people come to us, following the death of a relative, concerned about what may be on Facebook. We offer clear guidelines on how such material should be used by journalists, who now have to take into consideration such factors as: how private is the material; how accessible is it; what is its context; what is the public interest?

It is not surprising that some celebrities have resorted to injunctions (although perhaps no more than they have done in the past) when threatened with the prospect of losing their privacy. Sometimes they will have been justified, and certainly their reaction, their need to preserve information about their private life, is understandable. But, as we have seen, injunctions cannot silence the internet; they cannot stifle the gossip. When you try to squeeze hold of a piece of information, it will always slip between your fingers.

That was why Mosley's attempt to require journalists, by law, to notify people ahead of publication of articles about them was already an anachronism when the case started. The day on which the European Court rejected his proposal was the same day front pages were screaming about Twitter accounts ignoring injunctions. In this world of online information, everyone is a prospective journalist. Mosley's law would have had to be enforced on bloggers, or even people tweeting; it could never have worked in practice. If there is to be further regulation of social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter, it will have to be self-imposed. …