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Qui custodiet? Marr and the pesky media

May 1st, 2011

A MILDLY salacious scandal across the way brings up questions of privacy, prurience and media attitudes when their own ‘go rogue’.

Andrew Marr, the lean and hyperactive BBC frontman, has a distinguished career in print and broadcast behind him. He’s also at the centre of a story both extraordinary and mundane. It’s extraordinary because he, a ‘serious journalist’, sought a gagging order from the British High Court on stories about him; and mundane because it is about that most common of misbehaviour, an extra-marital affair.

Marr has revealed that he sought a ‘super-injunction’ in 2008. The matter he wanted suppressed was reporting of his relationship with a woman journalist, and a child she bore which he believed was his. Justification for the gag was the privacy of his family, he said.

Now super-injunctions, not familiar to the Irish courts, are bans which cover any reporting of the fact that the ban exists, not just the subject matter. So this article, for example, would be covered, as would a puzzling story that ‘A married actor has taken out a super-injunction to suppress reports of his frolics with a well-known prostitute’. That example is also being played out in Britain at the moment.

Marr’s given reason for breaking his own injunction appears to be a gnawing conscience. Also, it seems he no longer believes that his former mistress’s child is his. But with the rising tide of super-injunctions taken to protect the identities of fornicators, to use a good-old fashioned word, Marr felt that things had gotten out of control. He says he wanted to come clean about his own situation, and protest against the developing knee-jerk of giving tearful fearful celebrities double-lock protection.

Are these super-injunctions not being given out too lightly anyway, and has m’lud lost his collective mind? Such draconian measures might be appropriate in matters of national security, but the prurience of public knowledge that so-and-so cheats on his or her partner is another, much more minor, matter.

The Guardian newspaper has been campaigning against super-injunctions, and succeeded recently in a case involving an oil-trading company called Trafigura. The newspaper had a story which reflected badly on Trafigura; the company sought and obtained an injunction from Mr Justice Maddison in September 2009. Nothing could be reported. The Guardian chipped away and eventually published the full story of the super-injunction.

The British Prime Minister, David Cameron (who actually appears to have been saying what he thinks lately – surely some mistake for a politician) said last week that there was an over-reliance on super-injunctions.

Another high-profile British person with one is Sir Fred Goodwin, former head of Royal Bank of Scotland, who drew public ire when he retired with a 80 million pension after presiding over disaster at the bank.

Sir Fred currently has a super-injunction about what has been reported to be a private rather than business matter.

Whether or not super-injunctions should exist at all is one question; but whether they should be there to protect people who fear embarrassment when their sexual proclivities or excesses are revealed, is another one, perhaps easier to answer.

One practical point about the super-injunctions is the belief that the internet has made a nonsense of all such gagging orders, as there is always going to be someone, somewhere, in a safe jurisdiction, putting the information online. Wikipedia  has been a mine of information about ‘married actor’ and ‘Premier League footballer’ recently, although its administrators have been doggedly removing the names every time they are re-inserted.

On this subject, a general quote from a lawyer specializing in media, Steve Kuncewicz. He told The Drum website: ““The thing about social media is that it can be heard – whether it is right or wrong,”

“There will always be a place for journalism. Social media is raw information. How it is then interpreted is where the real value is and journalism is still part of the future, but now bloggers can be respected in much the same way as esteemed journalists. It’s easier to make a reputation for yourself through having an opinion online, where you don’t have the same barriers to entry.”

Or, you can put up any old rubbish when nobody is going to edit you.

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