So who’s the footballer behind The Sun’s frontpage headline NITWIT HITS TWITTER WITH WRIT (21.5.11)? And who are all those other famous people taking out injunctions to prevent the media reporting about their alleged affairs, corruption, wrong-doing, etc?
The answer to the first question is widely known by anyone with basic search-engine skills and an internet connection, and even those without Google Power may well find out by word-of-mouth (after all, social networks are basically mediated word-of-mouth gatherings). And the answers to the second question are likely to be reasonably widely known, unless, of course, that especially ruthless legal measure known as the super-injunction (where the injuction is not even declared outside the courts) remains leak-proof.
Debate about the relative merits of a person’s right to privacy (upheld by the European Convention on Human Rights notably) and the public’s right to know about news that may be in their interests is raging right now. But what’s all the fuss about? The fault, dear Brutus, lies not in accusations of press intrusion, but in the cowardliness of public figures afraid about losing their fat-cat jobs, assets, sponsorship and endorsements, lacking the guts to fight out their claim to innocence in an open court of law.
It’s a disgrace, quite frankly, that these censorship laws exist in England (unlike in most other countries, including the United States) and that Parliament/the Prime Minister has to waste public time and money debating whether or not to change them. Injunctions should never be necessary (unless in circumstances that endanger national security), and the burden of proof in libel and slander cases should fall on the accuser, NOT the defendant.
So if the accusation cannot be proven, the defendant should walk free and be left in privacy, his/her financial status and reputation intact, untainted by the trial-by-media campaign against him/her. As for the accuser, if he/she is found to be fabricating a kiss-and-tell type of story for their own financial/personal gain, they should receive the same punishment that the accused, if found guilty, would have received.
But blanket injunctions that restrict universal freedom of expression are not only immoral; they are unworkable. Social networks like Twitter and Facebook are far too popular and resilient to be controlled by anyone or anything, legal or otherwise, unless, perhaps, they reside in the People’s Republic of China. Whilst the analogy is not strictly true, social networks are much like groups of people, throughout the world, on streets, in parks, in pubs, on buses and so on, gossiping about the latest news and happenings. The cat’s been out of the bag for at least four years now, and no-one and nothing can find the bag, nevermind the cat.
The fact is, though, that social networks and social media are nothing to write home about, and certainly don’t warrant the legal and political attention centred on them currently. They’re like lots of little people with phone lines, calling lots of their little friends with their latest conversation piece… and then their little friends tell little others. To make such a fuss about Twitter is to endower it with powers it does not possess – at least, not until someone tries to repress the democratic freedom to speak.