Sunday, May 1, 2011

What do Mr X, ETK and NEJ have that Jeremy Clarkson doesn't? Privacy and intrigue

By Jennifer O’Connell

You could probably summarise everything I know about football on the back of a tooth whitening strip.

It would read something like this: Mr X is a premiership footballer who enjoys a “wholesome family man” image but who has been having it off behind his wife’s back for six months with the pretty Welsh girl who used to be in Big Brother.

Ironically, I couldn’t give a fig whether happily married premiership footballer, Giuseppe Smith, had an affair with a reality TV star turned topless model. It’s only the court-ordered anonymity that makes the story interesting.

This is a phenomenon known as the Streisand effect, after Barbra Streisand’s ill-fated attempt to suppress the publication of photos of her home, which only served to generate a media frenzy.

And so, according to the Streisand Effect, the news that the ‘household name’ TV actor, known as ETK, had a six month affair with a married co-worker before they broke up and she was asked to leave the organisation for which they both worked; or the story that a world famous married actor identified as NEJ has been calling on the prostitute formerly linked to Wayne Rooney, are far more titillating than, say, the recent, faintly stomach-churning revelations about Jeremy Clarkson’s alleged affair with a leggy Top Gear colleague.

We only know about Mr X, NEJ and ETK, because they were so desperate to kill the stories about their infidelity they went to court to seek a super injunction, a relatively new phenomenon in UK law.

Celebrities who want to stop a story about them getting into the papers have always had recourse to the injunction. But if they go for a so-called ‘super injunction’, then no reporting at all is allowed – including reporting of the super injunction’s existence.

Super injunctions have become so popular in Britain in the last 12 months that whole newspapers now read like the Psst! columns beloved of celebrity magazines. Which premiership footballer’s been scoring offside again? Which actor’s been snuggling up in his trailer with his female co-star?

It’s impossible to know how many stories have been kept out of the papers in the last year and a half by virtue of super-injunctions: the Guardian estimates the number to be at last 20; the Times puts it at closer to 30.

But super-injunctions are a high-risk game for celebrities because when they backfire, they are liable to do so spectacularly. In January last year, after footballer John Terry’s super-injunction against the media reporting allegations of an affair with team-mate Wayne Bridge’s girlfriend, Vanessa Perroncel, was lifted, the tabloids went wild in revenge.

But while it was impossible to avoid the Terry saga, you’d have to have been paying close attention to have spotted the one paragraph apology to Vanessa Perroncel that two of these tabloids quietly printed ten months later.

In the almost identically-worded retractions, the papers admitted that, not only did the stories they published about Perroncel’s “affair” with Terry represent an invasion of her privacy, they weren’t actually true.

Perroncel, who always denied the affair, later said in an interview with Grazia magazine: “I think he should have let the newspapers publish and we could have just sued them. Instead the story became the injunction."

Shame no one asked her opinion.

And, of course, this is where the real difficulty with the concept of the super injunction lies.

There’s something faintly sinister about the prospect of (invariably) wealthy, (almost certainly) male stars trooping off to the courts to get injunctions handed down by (invariably) wealthy (almost exclusively) male judges.

But there’s nothing faintly sinister about the way these super-injunctions contrive to treat the women involved like, as the Guardian’s lawyer Gill Phillips put it last year “chattels…bits of property”, whose rights are not only secondary to those of the men involved, they are discounted altogether. It’s just sinister.

While I’ve no real interest in knowing what the married actor got up to with the prostitute who also boasted Wayne Rooney as a client, I do have a difficulty with the legal system on which our own is so closely modelled effectively sanctioning the right of men to treat women as lumps of meat.

On the surface, super injunctions merely guarantee celebrities the privacy to pursue their lives without press invasion. By issuing them so indiscriminately, judges are giving men like them the nod to do what men like them have always done – with little or no regard to the effect on the women (or the children) involved.

In the case of Mr X, the judge prohibited newspapers from naming him – but chose not to extend it to Imogen Thomas, the former Big Brother contestant with whom he had the affair.

And there’s another issue. All too often, when the courts claim to be concerned with a public figure’s privacy, in fact what they’re doing is offering an insurance policy against self-inflicted damage to his commercial reputation.

Of course, super injunctions aren’t the exclusive preserve of wealthy individuals.

They’ve been used very effectively by big corporations to gag newspapers – as in the case of the Trafigura oil company, which successfully got a super injunction preventing the Guardian reporting on its role in the dumping of toxic waste in the Ivory Coast.

In recent days, the British Prime Minister David Cameron weighed in to the debate, saying he felt “a little uneasy” at the way privacy laws were being developed in the courts, without the British parliament having its say.

He pointed out that MPs, rather than judges, should be the ones to decide the right balance between freedom of the press and an individual’s right to privacy.

He’s right, of course. Because the alternative is a two-tier system, in which you’re entitled to as much privacy as you can afford. If you’re a wealthy premiership footballer or a famous actor, in other words, you can have as much privacy as you like. If you’re a grieving parent, or the innocent child of a convicted killer and a dead mother, as much privacy as you can afford may very well mean none at all.

The irony is that super injunctions are like a red rag to a bull. Thanks to Google, it took me about 30 seconds to find out the identities of NEJ, ETK and Mr X - at least if the online consensus is to be believed.

Unfortunately, as I’ve no desire to be extradited to Britain and thrown into jail, I can’t tell you. But even if I could, you probably wouldn’t have heard of two of them either.

This column first appeared in The Sunday Business Post on May 1, 2011.


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