The Long Ball Tactic

Ryan Giggs and Privacy

Posted in Uncategorized by mike on May 26, 2011

When Liberal Democrat MP John Hemming named Ryan Giggs in the chamber of House of Commons last week, he achieved more than The Sun newspaper could in two trips to the high courts – he effectively removed Giggs’s super-injunction.

What followed was the usual kind of tabloid feeding frenzy we see whenever there is a new story about a celebrity’s private life, but this particular episode was injected with the added drama of the super-injunction imposed suspense.

Anyone with an inquisitive mind and a Twitter account could have found out who the “well-known Premiership footballer” appearing in the papers only in silhouette was long before Hemming got up to speak. If Twitter wasn’t conclusive enough, hints were dropped in the Daily Mail and Private Eye at least a week in advance.

Football fans – not just Manchester United fans – furrowed their brows and exchanged solemn words across Twitter at all of  this. How base this seemed, to be speculating on someone’s private life – who cares? There came to the fore a school of thought that the Giggs affair was not just distasteful because of the man’s conduct, but because of the false actions of the newspapers and MP who uncovered it. Giggs even seemed to be painted as a victim in some circles – one man unable to hold back the tide of tabloid tittle-tattle and a celebrity-obsessed culture hungry for gossip.

Whilst there is some truth in this, it does seem to miss the point somewhat. It’s an inarguable truth that for The Sun and the Daily Mail to paint themselves as crusaders fighting for the noble value of freedom of speech is absolutely laughable, but this does not mean that what has happened isn’t a victory for values we should hold dear – not just for a free press, but also for a communal freedom of speech via Twitter.

If the Giggs affair had been successfully super-injunctioned what would that mean? It would mean that the law had been bent and shaped in such a way so that those with money were effectively free to pick and chose which of their misdemeanours made it into the public arena. Yes, Giggs wanted to keep his private life out of the newspapers and, yes, there is a huge financial imperative for tabloids to print these stories, but there is another element to this story too. As with the unfolding of the Tiger Woods affair in 2009, a sex scandal causes more than just embarrassment for a sportsman. It causes considerable commercial damage as well. Woods took time to apologise for his actions soon after the story broke and women who had spent a steamy night with the banal golfer were appearing in the press left, right and centre. But his apology appeared more concerned with making amends to his sponsors than expressing genuine regret, or reaching out to his young fans who may be left disillusioned. Woods subsequently was deemed “not the right representative” for a number of products that had previously been flogged bearing his name and image and, as a result, the Woods brand was changed and damaged irreparably.

Giggs too has commercial interests, just like any top flight footballer, were his image and brand at the forefront of his and Schilling’s – his legal representatives – minds when they went to the courts seeking a super-injunction? If so, why should the law be used to protect the commercial interests of the rich? Is this a fundamentally fair system? This alone is reason enough why this case is not merely a polarised affair between high-minded fans and gutter-press journalism.

The next step in this unusual quest for privacy taken by Giggs and Schillings was even more of a rank insult to those of us who value being able to communicate freely via the internet – to launch a lawsuit against those who dared name him on Twitter. This ill-thought out tactic was important, again not because anyone necessarily gave the tiniest shit about Giggs’s philandering, but because it could potentially set a dangerous precedent.

If Giggs had succeeded in forcing Twitter to close down accounts which breached his vanity and commercial-based super-injunction then what ramification would this have held for the future of the social media platform? Already Twitter has been used for noble causes such as the Arab Spring movements across the Middle East and the #spanishrevolution protests in Madrid and even in England with the #ukuncut movement – its use comes as an effective way to communicate and co-ordinate action.

This may seem an extreme example to use in contrast to a footballer who had an affair with a small time celebrity, but if Twitter can be censored over sex scandals then this sets the precedent for censoring for any number of reasons. Is it conceivable that whilst a dictator struggles to seize back control of their unruly population and the western powers are caught short and left floundering over who to support, pressure could come for Twitter to clamp down on protester’s tweets?

You might think that this is absurd, but it was already happened with mobile phone technology. In Egypt in January, as Hosni Mubarak sought to nullify the revolutionary protesters standing in Tahrir Square, the nation’s Vodafone customers suddenly found they had no signal on their mobile phones. The Mubarak government had requested Vodafone close down its network and the company had obliged, and thus a key way of co-ordinating protest action- of finding friends, family and merely keeping safe – was lost.

The point being – if censorship starts here then where does it end? Whilst the Giggs scandal has been a murky war, fought on one side by a man who cheated on his wife and on the other by media moguls keen to shift extra copies of their newspapers, it is nevertheless important. No one should be able to use the law to protect their commercial interests, and no one should be able to censor freedom of speech on the internet. It is not morally consistent for those who criticise the way the Giggs affair has played out to then (rightly) put the boot into Fred Goodwin, who was also named by Hemming in the commons but holds the (dis)advantage of being much more of an archetypal ‘bad guy’. If we seek to defend Giggs we seek to defend the rich’s right to different laws and rights of privacy than the rest of us. Just because he is a great footballer, he shouldn’t be given the sympathy of any football fans over this.

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