I appear to be in a minority in frowning on blackmail

I’m uninterested in the sex lives of footballers. But I don’t like blackmailers. And I don’t think the law should favour them.

Imagine this situation. Someone threatens to publish information about someone’s private life unless they receive a large pay-off to stay silent. I don’t think the law should say – “go ahead, publish away; you might be convicted of blackmail in the future but there’s no reason why anyone should be able to stop you publishing now if your would-be victim doesn’t pay up”.

I think the law should be able to say, “stop; don’t publish until we’ve sorted out those blackmail allegations”.

That’s why not only can’t I work up any outrage over a footballer taking an injunction out over their private life, I think it’s positively wrong to say they shouldn’t be able to do so.

I don’t know if there actually is blackmail involved in the case that’s all in the news at the moment. I know it’s been alleged and I know the courts have not dismissed the allegations out of hand. Perhaps the claims are true, perhaps not. I don’t know. But then you don’t either (unless, by some improbable twist, you are one of the tiny number of people with direct first-hand knowledge of the exchanges in question).

And until we do know, why cheer on the possibility that you’re saying to a blackmailer: publish away? We do know there’s enough substance to the allegation for the courts to be thinking seriously about it – so far better to let the legal system do its stuff and decide if the person is or isn’t a blackmailer first.

Imagine if the roles were a little different, and a rich powerful person was threatening to reveal something about someone on benefits unless that person coughed up an impossibly large sum of money. Would the idea of an injunction until the accusations of blackmail had been looked into really be wrong?

Sure, there are some things wrong with the injunctions system, especially the costs and the difficulties anyone faces in challenging them on the basis of a genuine wider public interest. That’s why I’m glad the Trafigura case turned out the way it did and why I think (Lord) Ben Stoneham did the right thing spilling the beans on Fred Goodwin in Parliament.

But I can’t help but notice that far more people have been tweeting about the footballer than the banker. The banker story was out there to be spread in just the same way, but it wasn’t. The media too made the same decision, with all those not-quite-so-hidden clues as to the identity of the footballer yet doing nothing on a similar scale for the banker.

The collective choice was: case with a public interest angle? Not really interested. Case featuring a footballer and sex? Yes, yes, yes!

Well, if you think there’s a shortage of celebrity sex stories in the media, or if you think blackmailers get an unfairly harsh time of it, fair enough. That’s a choice that does makes sense.

But count me out.

UPDATE: The allegations of blackmail were in the end firmly dismissed in December 2011 when, “Soccer star Ryan Giggs accepted today that there was no basis to accuse reality star Imogen Thomas of blackmail.”

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40 Comments

  • The reason why 75,000, or whatever it was, people tweeted about this is that this is not a law that protects against blackmail. It is a law designed to let the rich, and only the rich, get away with things in a way which is not available to the rest of us. I could not have taken out one of these injunctions, no matter what the circumstances.

  • Chris Nelson 24th May '11 - 7:57am

    I agree with you, Mark. I support the importance of freedom of speech when there is a genuine issue of public interest involved – but, quite frankly, this whole episode is little more than just tittle-tattle..

    The behaviour of the media – with “responsible” outlets like the BBC included – has been poor.

  • Surely, the reason why Twitter users were more concerned about the footballer than the banker is simple?
    As far as I’m aware, Fred Goodwin never threatened to go after Twitter users and sue them. Ryan Giggs did.

  • I think @gg has hit the nail on the head. If Giggs’ lawyers hadn’t threatened to go after Twitter and every single blogger who repeated the allegations, then it wouldn’t have become the story that it has. In essence, it did give the story some “legs”.

    There’s also the blackmail allegations (which do appear in the judgement.) Imogen Thomas legitimately argued that because of the way the judgement was worded, she wasn’t able to make her case and defend her position either publicly or in court, so in effect the judgement while protecting one individual was smearing another.

    Similarly, the injunction which emerged yesterday around a newspaper columnist’s tweets about another footballer (not Giggs) was put in place because the footballer involved was concerned about the damage that the story would do to his wife and children. Setting aside the point that “perhaps he should have thought of that beforehand” it’s the fact that supposed free speech is being squashed that’s my problem.

    In both cases – Giggs in particular – you wonder whether good, old fashioned PR stuff like what Max Clifford is an expert at might have been a better solution. Giggs needed to take control of the story – for example, by going to the press and saying “look, this happened, I’m sorry, wife & I have worked through it.” That would have killed it about a month or so ago. Instead, he’s in the position where he is having to deal with this and presumably the family fall-out just days before the Champions League final.

  • Mark

    You are a man of principle but you fail to see the greatest threat to our society as a whole and that is that since feudal times we have had a 2 tier legal system that gives advantages and protection to the rich and crushes the poor.

    You say that someone on benefits could get an injunction against a powerful blackmailer yet the truth is that in our society today no they cant, instead they just have to deal with the fallout. Well if that is the situation for the poor then why should the rich be given extra protection via injunctions and the courts – remember the rich can afford to sue for libel if the story isnt true something that of course the poor are unable to do.

  • I put this up on another thread, but it seems relevant here.

    http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/QB/2011/1326.html

    Note in particualar para 27 which is especially staggering. Not the greatest advert for free speech.

    KL – Giggs was not, ‘going after twitter and everyone on it,’ as the papers would like you to believe. He was pursuing journalists about whom it appears there is reasonable suspicion that they breached an injunction.

  • @Mark
    Totally agree an abuse of privilege which will only help the Tories attack the Human Rights Act.

    @Chris
    Only the rich get blackmailed or exposed in this way, and only the rich’s lives are of interested to the shalllow pathetic media and consumers who wish to hear who has been in bed with whom. Unless you are a famous celeb I doubt if your sex life will make the tabloids.

    @gg
    He could not sue the Twitter users unless they were defaming him. However, if amongst the Twitter users there were journalists seeking to knowingly bypass the injunction they could be held in contempt of Court.

    @KL
    “Imogen Thomas legitimately argued that because of the way the judgement was worded, she wasn’t able to make her case and defend her position either publicly or in court, so in effect the judgement while protecting one individual was smearing another.”

    Not true. If Ms Thomas had not published her part in this by allowing, one assumes with a fee, the Sun to publish her details she would also benefit from the anonymity.

    What’s most strange to me is that the majority on this blog feel it was not a big issue for David Laws to lie on expense forms using privacy as an excuse, yet feel a footballer, following the correct legal approach is the enemy. A great triumph for indivudual liberties. Or shold that be a another victory for the press…

  • Injunctions are not the same as super-injunctions, and therefore I think your article is mis-directed. Super-injunctions, because they forbid reporting the actions of the judiciary, are intrinsically in the public interest; wheras normal, plain old vanilla injunctions are not, because they do not mask the judiciary behind a very illiberal veil of ignorance.

    Of course maybe rich and powerful men should not sleep with women, and then use their wealth to cover it up, and maybe anonymity should go both ways…

  • Mark – if you know something we don’t then please do pass the information and evidence you have to the CPS. Until then why don’t you stop spreading what is potenatially libel? I’m going to be passing
    the post onto Max Cliffords office as I understand Ms Thomas is considering libel action.

    I find it ironic that the people who are so eager to defend Giggs accept that what he wants to hide is the TRUTH but are happy to throw around serious allegations such as blackmail against Thomas which have no evidence to support them. Double standards? Lets face it , alot of this is motivated by sexism.

    Judges have great power. They should not start accusing people of things if they don’t have evidence.

  • Duncan – where did this ‘reasonable suspicion’ test come in? You are making things up as you go along. Where is your evidence that journalists were posting these tweets? People are frankly just making things up to suit their arguments. Shame on you. How come you seem to know more than everyone else? Or could it be you are just reading into things thing which are not there?

    You have every right to hate the press but you don’t have a right to gag them.

  • Chris Nelson – you remind me of those people who say ‘im not racist BUT.,..’.

    If this is tittle tattle then let the people decide, its not for you or some judge to sit on high above the plebs and decide. Many people believe this went from tittle tattle to a threat to free speech the moment Ryan Giggs went after ordinary people on twitter for stating the truth. How can it be right for the rich to go after normal people and threaten then with 2 years in prison for stating the truth.

    Liberty is a wonderful thing and I am ashamed that more poeple on this site are not defending it and prefer to defend the rich and powerful. I joined the Lib Dems around a year ago and wonder what sort of party I really joined. You are called the liberal democrats not the privacy democracts.

  • Mr Smith – first of all please avoid the ad hominem. It is libellous to say there is a suspicion because the effect on her reputation is essentuially the same, it gets dragged through the mud. The evidence you suggest is the witness statement of Giggs. Ms Thomas has not been able to challenge this in court, it has been allowed to stand. Here’s an idea – maybe Giggs lied? Or does the fact the can kick a ball around mean he does not lie? He cetainly was good at lying to his wife.

    Whether Mark has libeled Ms Thomas or not is not for me or you to decide but the court and it will be Ms Thomas’ decision as to whether she wishes to begin proceedings against him and the site. Please note i used the words potentially libel.

  • The only criterion for passing on any information about a person is the truth. If something is true, no one should be able to stop anyone else referring to it in public. If a published or about-to-be-published statement is untrue, then it should be stopped from spreading further.

    Now that the name of the footballer is being mentioned by everyone, the only thing I am interested in is whether the stories are true. If he did have an affair, then we should all be able to say so. If he did not, then those who say that he did should have action taken against them.

    Parliamentary privilege is there to protect free speech, not to circumvent the laws of slander or libel.

  • ‘Stand up and be counted’ is a long standing saying in the English language. Anonymity is the enemy of free speech because with freedom comes responsibility. The internet is a wonderful thing but its ability to allow people to pass on unconfirmed rumours in an anonymous way without any attribution is very very dangerous in the long term.

    If a person is not willing to put his or her name to something without good cause (e.g. fear of reprisal in another country), then it should not be said.

  • Mark, on the one hand you defend Chris Huhne using the defence that allegations are untested by the courts and the police, yet on the other you imply that allegations of blackmail, untested by the courts (Eady’s opinion is of little bearing as it is not judging a criminal act) and the police are a suitable justification for action.

    Then there is the logic that to prevent blackmail secrets must remain secret, which is somewhat odd since a blackmailer relies on the fact that the victim will pay to keep a secret kept.

    That said this issue could have been handled better by parliament and the courts and it does raise the question of whether the Lib Dem Party supports the actions of John Hemming and does it have a position on privacy law and the relative powers of parliament and the judiciary?

  • Well, at least this proves one thing…
    For better or worse, Twitter activists do have the ability to affect real world change.

  • ” If Ms Thomas had not published her part in this by allowing, one assumes with a fee, the Sun to publish her details she would also benefit from the anonymity.”

    Your mistaken assumption in making this assertion is that ‘the newspapers are all’. Parties to this case may have told all sorts of people about what the other party did in all sorts of ways nobody knows about. If my dad has phoned you to tell you you’re a disgraceful bastard for what you’ve done to his daughter and you tell him I’ve been blackmailing you , he might well believe you, as might half the people in half the posh coffee bars in Wilmslow, Cheshire or the world. Where do I get my chance to have my say to all those people who’ve been told about me by you/your rich friends/your rich friends’ friends but I don’t know they’ve been told about me? If i want to tell the world that I dumped you because you’re a perverted pig who forced strange sexual practices upon me, and you are advertising coca cola as a ‘straight up family man’, where are my rights? You’ve gagged me good and proper.

    This judge-made law is a rich man’s tool for control. End of.

  • Two things:

    Firstly, blackmail is a crime. None of this stuff about superinjunctions will change that. Can you explain why it ought to be the job of a privacy law to pre-emptively prevent the possibility of blackmail? This seems to be your expectation.

    Secondly, the argument that the Fred Goodwin case is in the “public interest” and the Ryan Giggs one isn’t is as weak as a non-alcoholic whiskey. Can you give any argument for this? Other than the fact that he’s a banker and therefore currently a hate figure with a large part of the country. Yes, there are many aspects of his wrongdoings that the public has a genuine right to know about, but what exactly does his having an affair have to do with any of this? It has no bearing on anything.

  • Alex P – the argument wasn’t that it was “because Fred Goodwin had had an affair”. It was because the affair had been with a senior employee at the same bank, and therefore issues relevant to the use of taxpayers’ money in a large bailout may well have been present. In normal circs (if, say FG had had an affair with Imogen Thomas, rather than Ryan Giggs) he would be entitled to the same degree of privacy as RG should be.

    David Cohen – why do you accuse those debating here of sexism? If Imogen Thomas were having her reputation torn apart, I think most of us on here would wish to defend her. Personally, I think this nonsense about “role models” (as a reason for printing all this salacious stuff) is complete hypocrisy. I think most people will pick up a NoW briefly to see who might be screwing who, where, and under what conditions, but that really doesn’t justify invasions of privacy. And whether you describe kiss and tell as “blackmail” under certain circs or not, it is pretty unpleasant.

  • >In other words, in cases where there is a reasonable suspicion of blackmail it has been public policy to grant anonymity to the alleged victim until the blackmail case itself has been heard

    As I understand it, once proceedings are active in a blackmail case, it would be contempt of court to name the alleged victim.
    ie right at the very start of the proceedings, long before they ever come to the criminal court*

    The idea being that victims would be afraid to report the blackmailer to the police if a criminal prosecution meant their secret coming out in public.

    *In England, Wales and Northern Ireland, criminal proceedings become active on arrest, or charge, or when a warrant for arrest is issued, or when a summons is issued. In Scotland, criminal proceedings become active on arrest or when a warrant for arrest is issued.

    So: victim files complaint to police. Victim’s lawyer notifies any media thinking of publishing the story that an allegation of blackmail is being investigated by the police.
    Media have to check if proceedings are active and if so, not publish anything. Shouldn’t take the police five minutes to issue a summons, so no big ‘window of opportunity’ for the media to publish what they like.

    >– so far better to let the legal system do its stuff and decide if the person is or isn’t a blackmailer first.

    The civil court judgement seems to have pre-empted any criminal proceedings and found her guilty without trial.
    It may not have done so literally, but that’s the perception of ordinary people reading it.
    Seems to me this woman has effectively been publicly branded a blackmailer without having the chance to contest the claim in front of a jury.

  • Dave Thawley 25th May '11 - 7:33am

    I’m sorry, I think you are buying into a social construction put out by Giggs inc. I posted this on the nortonview but I think you wll follow my thoughts even if they are a little out of context

    I agree with what you say here. At the end of the day, however undemocratic our current political system is ,it alone should be responsible for creating law. In stead the Judiciary seems to have taken it upon itself attempt to push through a marked change in the way of doing things which is outside of their remit and is not right at all. I think John Hemming was correct in what he did. His job is to protect his constituents and with Ryan Giggs attempting to sue people from Twitter he did just that. It was lovely the way Giggs also protected himself at the expense of Imogen (apparently anyway naming her in the super injunction to protect himself). I also believe more cynically that the super injunction is as much based on preventing damage to the Giggs brand name (and therefore financially base) as much as protecting his wife and kids. As you said he would have kept his pants zipped up if he cared that much about them. Since people brought into the Giggs brand name in good faith the fact that part of it is just fiction is definitely of public interest. Just my opinion again but the Judges involved seem to have been duped into protecting this fiction at the expense of other people (money talks apparently). I’m very happy with the Honorable John since he has done a great public service with his actions. I hope if the need arises he will do the same in the future.

  • @Dave Thawley

    “Ryan Giggs attempting to sue people from Twitter”
    Evidence please ? He was attempting to identify who was the source of the leaked information, two entirely different issues. If you read the earlier Court Judgement you will see why this was a legitimate concern.

    “It was lovely the way Giggs also protected himself at the expense of Imogen”
    She had, according to the Judement, already been named by the Paper prior to the injunction being requested. Again I would read the judgements and particularly take not that she had Counsel at all but the first hearing.

    ” I also believe more cynically that the super injunction”
    It was not a so called super injunction. The fact it existed was openly reported.

    “As you said he would have kept his pants zipped up if he cared that much about them.”
    The Court are obliged to take the childrens interests into account even if a parent (as is clear in this case) did not.

    “Since people brought into the Giggs brand name in good faith the fact that part of it is just fiction is definitely of public interest”
    If that was felt to be the case the Sun would have argued the public interest in Court, they did not. They argued that the name was already in the public domain.

    “Just my opinion again but the Judges involved seem to have been duped into protecting this fiction at the expense of other people ”
    The Sun hardly count as a victim, also you believe Giggs should have kept it in his pants but that the lady who slept with a married man is an innocent ? Personally I do not wish to judge either of their morals, what two people do in a bedroom should be in private (as long as it is within the law) and both parties should expect it to remain so.

  • Thomas has been accused of blackmail by a judge, yet there is no case been brought to court to allow her to defend herself. She is also unable to defend herself publicly.

    If there’s real concern over blackmail, then it should be treated as a criminal matter, with relevant proceedings. It cannot be right for the process to be pre-empted, without Thomas having the right to defend herself.

  • Mark superb could not agree more.

  • Ryan Giggs featured more than Fred Godwin because no one has yet shown Godwin’s relationship led to any criminality or financial irregularity – the press knew of the relationship and could investigate if there was thus providing the public interest that would make the story more news worthy. Giggs on the other hand relates to freedom of speech in Scotland compared to England due to separate legal systems, allegations of blackmail, freedom of the press and the added spice of sex and football which means more then what a loathed banker did sexually.

    Giggs also threatened through his lawyers to arrest ordinary members of the public for mentioning his name. That alone made people twitter his infidelity the more. It actually is a bigger deal than the Godwin story, providing the titillation aspect is not the main thing.

  • Tony Dawson 4th Jun '11 - 12:30pm

    I think the whole issue of ‘blackmail’ needs to be looked at far more seriously and critically.

    Demanding money with menaces for (a) agreeing to not spread a damaging lie about someone or (b) to not report someone’s criminal activity should properly be an offence. But truth is universal. What right have I to ‘corner’ truth, especially if it relates to my despicable behaviour, just because I say (and, because I am rich, my lawyers insist) it is ‘private’ ? Poor people have no such luxury.

    The stronger my ‘rights'(sic) to keep ‘private’ (sic) my bad behaviour, including stopping those who know about it from benefiting by selling that information, the more incentive there appears to be for me to behave badly. There is plenty of evidence that this is happening in our society, especially aong media-hyped ‘role models’.

    My assets, as a person in this society, include all that I know and all that I can do. Why should ‘society’ (or, to be more accurate, the rich establishment) restrict my rights to trade on that knowledge? The only exception would appear, to me, being if I have given, and could be proven to have given, definite prior commitment to retain privacy of certain specific information. I do not see how anyone can sensibly say that an act of consensual copulation implies any duty of privacy about that copulation, or any related activity. Nor, indeed, does a kiss in a bar.

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