LONDON – Britain's scandal-hungry news media, an outspoken parliamentarian and thousands of ordinary people using the Twitter micro-blogging site have dealt a body blow to an institution of British justice, flouting a gag order imposed by one of the country's top judges.
Soccer star Ryan Giggs had been granted an injunction preventing media from publishing allegations that he'd had an affair with reality television contestant Imogen Thomas, but over the past few days his identity has increasingly appeared across the Internet, leaving newspapers to chomp at the bit as Twitter users swapped jokes about the sportsman's alleged indiscretion.
The journalists knew. The soccer fans knew. Even Prime Minister David Cameron knew, telling morning television that it was "rather unsustainable where newspapers can't print something everyone else is talking about."
But breaking an injunction is a serious business, and the dam didn't completely burst until British lawmaker John Hemming identified Manchester United star Giggs in Parliament on Monday. Members of Parliament benefit from absolute immunity, meaning that they have free rein to say what they wish and shrug off the threat of contempt of court.
Until then, Britain's media had largely held its fire, relying instead on knowing references in gossip columns and blacked-out profile shots. But the pressure had been building all weekend, with hundreds of tweets an hour identifying Giggs as the man behind the gag order. Soccer fans openly taunted Giggs about the matter at a recent game. One journalist even blurted out part of the man's name in a broadcast interview.
The case has increasingly become a touchstone for arguments over what Britons know as "super-injunctions" — sweeping legal measures that ban journalists from writing about something, or even writing about the fact that they can't write about something.
The injunction that had been at work in the soccer star's case was more properly known as an "anonymized injunction" — which meant that media organizations such as The Associated Press could write about him, so long as they kept his name a secret.
Gag orders aren't necessarily devoted to tawdry personal matters, but of the 30 or so such injunctions awarded in Britain since 2008, all but three have gone to males. That has lead some legal commentators to suggest that the injunctions are being used by wealthy and powerful men to keep their alleged sexual indiscretions from being aired in public.
It's in that context that Giggs' name increasingly dripped out over the past few weeks. Every time his legal team tried to plug a leak, several more sprang.
Thomas went to Britain's High Court to try to overturn the injunction earlier this month. She was defeated, but a mysterious Twitter account revealed Giggs' name anyway, a move that swiftly drew national attention. Giggs' lawyers only poured fuel on the fire when they demanded that Twitter reveal who was behind the Internet campaign, prompting some outraged users to spread the news even more widely.
On Sunday, Scotland's Sunday Herald became the first British newspaper to flout the injunction, publishing a thinly censored photograph of the soccer star on its front page. Only his eyes were blacked out, and beneath the sportsman's clearly recognizable face, the Herald wrote that "everyone knows" this was the star "accused of using the courts to keep allegations of a sexual affair secret."
In an editorial, the Herald said it was "unsustainable" for newspapers not to be able to print information that was available on the Internet.
The paper quickly noted that it was not accusing the sportsman of carrying out an affair, but said that "whether the allegations against him are true or not has no relevance to this debate."
"The issue is one of freedom of information and of a growing argument in favor of more restrictive privacy laws," the paper said.
Speaking on Britain's ITV before Giggs' name was made completely public, Cameron called for a "time out" to "have a proper look at this." Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt promised lawmakers he would create a committee to examine how the rules governing gagging orders could be changed.
"We take seriously the need to ensure we have the correct balance between privacy and freedom of expression," he said.
Meanwhile, Britain's High Court turned down attempt after attempt to formally lift the injunction. Nevertheless, the average wise-cracking Internet user isn't likely to face legal action. As Hemming noted in his comments to Parliament, 75,000 people have named Giggs on Twitter, and "it is obviously impracticable to imprison them all."
Hemming was quickly admonished by House of Commons Speaker John Bercow for his outburst.
A lawyer for Giggs did not immediately return an email seeking comment.