How Twitter Thwarts Censorship of the Press

In Britain, bankers, athletes, and others have sought gag orders to stop coverage of embarrassing scandals—but it's hard to squash discussion in the age of social media

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LONDON — It's a tale of two bankers, and the story of two views of press freedom versus privacy -- and of how Twitter is making the bewigged hair of judges and lawyers here stand on end.

Who doesn't know of the alleged sexual escapades of Dominique Strauss-Khan, the former head of the IMF? We not only know about the encounter in the hotel suite, but of other women with whom he has had affairs. We've seen him in the "perp" walk, handcuffs, and mug shots.

The other high-profile banker is Frederick Goodwin. He was the chief executive of the Royal Bank of Scotland, one of the world's 10 largest banks, when it virtually collapsed and had to be bailed out with some £20 billion of taxpayer money. He was forced out but ended up with a pension worth more than the equivalent of some half million dollars a year. Angry investors threw bricks through the windows of his house in Edinburgh.

Will celebrities now have to sue Twitter and other social network sites to keep details of their sex lives private?

It turns out that Goodwin had a sexual relationship with a colleague that may have affected his performance at RBS. But the British public only learned about this last week, and then only when a member of parliament referred to it indirectly.

Last March, when Sir Fred, as he is referred to here -- he was knighted by the Queen in 2004 for his services to banking -- got wind that a newspaper was going to write about the affair, he went to court and got an injunction barring it from doing so.

The injunction not only prohibited any reporting about the relationship. It barred any reporting that Goodwin had sought an injunction. The media could not even report that a "banker" had sought an injunction. He was referred to in court papers as MNB.

Let me repeat, to be sure you understand this: The media could not even report that Sir Fred, or a "banker," had sought an injunction.

His case is by no means unique. Judges have issued more than 80 "gagging" orders in the last six years and more than 18 already this year, according to an investigation by The Daily Telegraph.

The newspaper found that the injunctions were sought by nine footballers (we call them soccer players), nine actors, six businessmen and women, a civil servant, and a member of parliament. They were usually sought to hide sexual indiscretions.

Lawyers representing clients seeking injunctions argue that they are necessary to protect an individual's right to privacy, a right embedded in the European Union's human-rights law. Many judges agree.

Perhaps the most troubling case didn't involve sex, privacy, or an individual, but toxic waste and an oil trading company, Trafigura. When The Guardian newspaper was about to publish an internal company report saying that the company was dumping toxic waste in Ivory Coast, Trafigura went to court and got a super injunction prohibiting any mention of the report or its contents. The company was identified as RJW and SJW.

A few weeks later, during an open session, a member of parliament asked about the injunction obtained by Trafigura "on the alleged dumping of toxic waste in the Ivory Coast."

The Guardian was prohibited from reporting on this. The editors and reporters faced heavy fines and imprisonment if they even named the member of parliament who asked the question, let alone what he asked.

Presented by

Raymond Bonner is an investigative reporter living in London. He was previously a foreign correspondent for The New York Times and a staff writer at The New Yorker, and is the author of Anatomy of Injustice: A Murder Case Gone Wrong.

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