By now you will have heard that the celebrity injunction is back. You may even have heard who the injunction that's making headlines concerns, thanks to the devil-may-care attitude of the US, or a Scottish newspaper (or figured it out for yourself, thanks to the death-wish reporting of the Daily Mail).
And yet, because of the creaking, clunking nature of British law, it is still impossible (or illegal, at least) for me to write down the name of the individual who has taken it out.
Weird, isn't it? That I could be taken to court for writing a single word in this space: _____. If I was to type the last name of the applicant there, I would be opening myself up to a whole world of legal trouble. If the courts really wanted to be dicks about it, I could potentially face prison. For writing a single word.
Weirder still, I wouldn't even have to write it there. I could drop the same word—as a noun, maybe; or a verb—into an unrelated sentence and that alone could be enough to haul me in front of a judge, if it identified the claimant.
Weirdest of all, I wouldn't actually have to write it at all. I could just hint at it with the faintest suggestion of a wink and a nudge and I'd have a legal threat land on my desk.
All for one word. A word that can be freely reported in any other country in the world without fear; a word that has appeared in almost every UK newspaper in various different contexts for weeks now.
How did we end up in such a ludicrous position?
You can trace this same problem back to the late 80s, when a series of injunctions were taken out by the government against various publishers in landmark legal action known as the Spycatcher cases. They failed in the end, but lasted long enough to make the system look ridiculous.
Spycatcher was a book written by a former MI5 serviceman, Peter Wright (co-authored by Hollywood director Paul Greengrass). In it, Wright gave a candid account of his time in MI5, revealing confidential details about personnel, operations, and technology. It was embarrassing and compromising for many individuals, so the British government sought to injunct its publication.
They successfully obtained an injunction in London, but the trouble is that, much like today, an injunction issued by the British courts is only effective in England and Wales. As such, the book was published without constraint in Australia (after the UK government failed to block it there), the US, and many other countries—then simply imported into the UK by curious people on vacation and other such provocateurs.
Although people could easily get hold of their own copy of Spycatcher, and the whole thing was huge news, the Sunday Times was held in contempt of court for serializing the book and the UK press was legally forbidden from touching it until the European Court dismissed the injunction because there was nothing left to protect.
So for at least 30 years we have known that living in a globally-connected world has made a mockery of our injunction laws. The internet, unsurprisingly, has only exacerbated the problem.
The closest we got to effecting any useful change was the last time we got properly gloved up and elbow deep in the murky world of celebrity injunctions back in April 2011.
Five years ago, it seemed that practically every celebrity worth their salt had taken out some sort of court order to cover up their screwing. Their weapon of choice was the super-injunction: an order which is so secret it not only stops you naming the parties but also bans you from even saying an injunction has been granted.
Ryan Giggs had one to hide an affair he was having with Imogen Thomas. Jeremy Clarkson had one to stop it being known that he was sticking it to both his wife and his ex-wife concurrently. Even boring celebrities like the BFG of political journalism, Andrew Marr, had taken one out to throw a smokescreen up around a story that he had a lovechild (DNA testing subsequently revealed the child wasn't his).
Injunctions scattered the nation's newsdesks like so much confetti and everyone—including the tabloid press's fiercest critics—became united in the view that there was absolutely no justification for a ragtag bunch of celebs (overwhelmingly rich, white men) to misuse the courts in such a way, merely to spare their blushes.
Public indignation was huge. Political heft was being put behind the cause, with John Hemming MP using his parliamentary privilege to bust one of the big names. Clarkson and Marr gave up and outed themselves. We were tottering on the verge of finally sorting out Britain's injunction problem once and for all—and then, bang. The phone-hacking scandal broke.
Any sympathy for the press evaporated quicker than piss on a hot rock and the whole thing got dropped.
Quietly, injunction lawyers skulked away, leaving a huge cache of forgotten injunctions behind them, some of which remain in effect to this day. (Most of those 'super-injunctions' that Twitter supposedly bust wide open? You'll still be in breach of the law for identifying anyone involved in the dozens of them that still stand.)
For five years the lawyers have been biding their time, regaining their strength, feasting on the souls of virgins, and preparing their return.
Now they're back. And this time we need to fight them. Properly.
You don't have to be interested in the sexual proclivities of the people involved in this latest injunction to want this stuff overturned. You can happily balance a personal belief in the right to privacy with a desire to see the end of this sort of legal stupidity.
It's the fact that injunctions—often a crucial tool in the administration of justice—are widely being misused by celebrities to cover up their personal indiscretions that has people seriously considering the place of the courts in such matters.
Yet injunction reform has been slow to happen because most of the people involved in it don't have any particular inclination or impetus to force it.
Injunction holders, naturally, would rather everyone forgot about injunctions so that their secrets remain hidden. Privacy lawyers would largely be happy with the system becoming even more complicated and unwieldy to boost their number of billable hours. And publishers don't really have the time or the cash to take such a massive gamble.
Still, if there's one good thing to come out of the absolute shitshow currently occurring over PJS v News Group Newspapers (which is the technical name for that injunction) it's that widespread attention is finally being paid to this part of the industry again.
All we have to hope now is that a massive, distracting scandal that potentially implicates the Prime Minister in some rather dicey conduct doesn't derail the debate again.
Fingers crossed, eh?