House of Lords member Lord Stoneham of Droxford yesterday used Parliamentary Privilege to make public details of an #injunction that former #RBS Chief Executive Sir Fred Goodwin had on the story that he was involved in an extra-marital affair while the bank was collapsing in front of him.
The comments were made in the Chamber at the Palace of Westminster hours before legal teams met at the High Court to discuss said gagging order, with one party seeking to have it overturned. Sir Fred himself did not object to the removal of the injunction, which enables the media to run with a story that will put plenty of heat on him once again.
Injunctions and super-injunctions have been making the headlines recently because media outlets have been unable to report on the more salacious stories that are doing the rounds about high-profile personalities. The pub gossip that people take part is censured. Some people criticise the judiciary, claiming that it undermines the press. Others believe that Privacy is a basic human right that requires individual mistakes to not be splashed in the press.
My view is that the press and the individuals using these injunctions and super-injunctions are right. The problem is that in between both arguments lies what is known as public interest, a term used by the media as a ‘catch-all.’ With this self-regulated tool, the media can invade the privacy of anybody and any organisation. And there lies the problem. Organisations need to be accountable, as do the people working for them and for government. That said, there is a fine line that divides a mistake from the effect it has on an organisation.
The law has always been a tool in the public relations armoury. Reputation management has used the law to gag a story from being discussed in the media, very much under the impression that if the media is not able to run the story then nobody will know the issues that can be damaging to their clients reputations and trust. This is naïve, stupid and out dated. Public relations is rarely able to repair the damage that requires this kind of force.
Yes, there is a need for Privacy and there is a need for injunctions and super-injunctions. The question is, should they be made available and affordable to everyone? Yes. Should there be further debate on which applications receive one? Yes. Duplicity and double-standard needs to be outted. From a public relations perspective, reputation management is always harder when the damage has been done, even though said damage is not yet in the public arena.
How many times have we as PR professionals held our head in our hands wandering how we can repair the damage by some ill-conceived decision or action?
The current debate about injunctions and super-injunctions is of course in the media because details of many of these have been outted to social networking sites. The fact is that we live in a less media centric world where consumers of news can obtain gossip and stories online. It is this that smashes the legal structure and protection that the law affords to individuals to protect, rightly or wrongly, the privacy and reputation. But this in itself is a misnomer, because sites such as Google, Facebook and Twitter are based overseas in jurisdictions with firm legal structures.
Social and search sites can be notified and given due time to remove content that libels clients. But this course this course of action to protect one’s soiled reputation carries it’s own risk – reputation is about trust and trust is won and lost in the court of public opinion. It is the members of this court – you and I, that gathers information and consumes it. The fact is that we live in a world where there is less control, which is why PR should learn this and work within the new structure that social networking has created.
I have given presentations to a series of law firms, highlighting how social media and it’s central pillar of information sharing, which happens cross jurisdictions can undermine their work. The skills and ability to share information without leaving a trace is there. The internet is a channel that crosses geographical boundaries. There is concern that such tactics are being used within journalism to undermine the case for privacy. It is a case of cat and mouse, and at the moment the media is the mouse the law is the old lethargic cat.
Social media has become a tool that can undermine law and if not undermine then push it into the 21st century. For many the law is just a form of censorship that prevents free speech and public interest. In fact a well-known blog has made available a Google Document listing all the supposed injunctions that currently exist. Today it is a question of if you search you will find.
Reputations today are being saved and more importantly destroyed by our own human willingness to engage in hearsay and gossip. Individuals, companies and brands spend a lot on projecting an image that attracts business. They should be protected, but only if the actions for which they seek an injunction or super injunction are not duplicitous.
Reputation management is today a skill amongst public relations practitioners that requires real-time management. Controlling a crowd is nigh on impossible. Once the damage is done an injunction will only act as a plaster.
PRs have to work not just with the legal court, but importantly the court of public opinion, a court that is a well briefed by content that is available online.
It appears that a UK Premier League player has started legal proceedings against Twitter to secure the disclosure of the currently ‘unknown persons’. Legal firm Schillings said in a statement, “to obtain limited information concerning the unlawful use of Twitter by a small number of individuals who may have breached a court order.”
We assume that such action will be taken by a partner law firm in California, though given that the unlawful act has taken place in the UK, a separate legal jurisdiction, it is going to be tricky to see how this works. Of course, if those people who started the allegations are in the UK then they will not be eligible to America’s Constitution First Amendment, which allows free speech.