Democracy against 'privacy'

The wooden spoon goes to the Alliance for Workers' Liberty, writes James Turley

He has played for a single football club over 600 times in the last 20 years; he quickly became iconic of Manchester United’s ‘golden generation’, of which he is almost the last survivor; and as such has seen more success on the football pitch than the vast majority of players can even dream of.

To this impressive CV, perhaps Ryan Giggs will soon be able to add a rather more dubious entry. His name has rapidly established itself at the centre of the political storm over privacy law and, more specifically, superinjunctions. British newspapers (or rather British tabloids) - we now know, thanks to MP John Hemming’s use of parliamentary privilege to out him - have been banned from reporting the allegations of a glamour model that Giggs had been, so to speak, playing away; and they have also been banned from mentioning that the ban is in place.

The case of Giggs’s alleged infidelity, then, has become the latest staging post for opponents of superinjunctions. Matters are, of course, complicated by the fact that - as Hemming and even David Cameron have acknowledged - mainstream media outlets were unable to report Imogen Thomas’s claims (best known for a stint on Big brother in its declining years) did not mean that they were not widely known anyway. Anyone with any interest in Giggs’s extra-curricular activities had only to peruse Twitter to discover his identity - he had been outed as the ‘mystery footballer’ in no less than 75,000 140-character sound bites by the end of things, and the story was subsequently carried widely in the international media.

Giggs has chosen the King Canute response - launching a lawsuit against Twitter, which has all the makings of a crucially important ‘test case’. And it also a ‘test case’ for us, bringing together as it does a whole series of means of capitalist domination - principally the ‘rule of law’ and the power of the media.


To take the latter first, the most obvious truth this scandal highlights about the mass media is its - often overstated, but nevertheless real - changing structure. The global communications infrastructure is nothing new, but, in the age of the internet, media globalisation has been considerably accelerated.

In this respect, it is quite clear that Giggs’s lawsuit - whatever impact it may have on Twitter’s British operation - amounts to, as the saying goes, pissing in the wind. Even if we arrived at a situation where there was a legal requirement to notify the subject of a news story prior to publication, equally binding on social networking sites as on newspapers (this was the unsuccessful interpretation of privacy law Max Moseley brought to the European Court of Human Rights), that would only cover a limited legal jurisdiction. A website hosted in Gambia which presumed to flout a British superinjunction would not be subject to any meaningful censure once the legal practicalities are taken into account.

So the fact that the world is divided into a great tranche of distinct states, great and small, increasingly conflicts with the tendency for capital to work across different national boundaries, with the effect that it becomes ever more difficult for a particular state to impose censorship on its media. More unashamedly authoritarian regimes resort to wholesale censorship of internet communications, but it is difficult to know how effective that is where it has been tried.

The result is that attempts to suppress digital media are often wildly counterproductive. Internet commentators have even coined a phrase, the ‘Streisand effect’ - named after singer Barbra Streisand, who attempted to censor an image of her home - to describe the phenomenon whereby a revelation taken off one website is immediately republished on innumerable others, such that it cannot be deleted from the public consciousness.

Conflicts with the judiciary are inevitable in any case. It is up to the state to ensure the conditions under which capitalism may continue to reproduce itself are maintained, and a good part of those conditions consists in control over information, and who may possess it. Not for nothing is ‘Open the books’ a revolutionary demand with a long and storied history - secrecy in the affairs of capital, and moreover in the affairs of the state itself, is a measure of power afforded the ruling class over the rest of us.

So, while the flashpoint of this dispute is the infidelity or otherwise of a footballer (and a series of other prominent men), the implications go much deeper. What is at issue is not so much the immediately apparent matter of whether the rich and famous should have legal recourse to keep their private lives out of the press, but the ability of the state to keep things out of the press tout court, by way of judicial regulation of what may be published.

This, in the end, accounts for the timidity of David Cameron’s government in dealing with the superinjunction; a parliamentary committee convened to discuss the matter ended up with a series of platitudinous recommendations, including new legal guidelines designed to make it more difficult for people to obtain injunctions. The issue that will not be put on the table is the ‘right’ of the judiciary to decide these matters itself, precisely because it is a key component of capitalist political rule. In this situation, court judgments come out in favour of those who spend the most money; making injunctions more onerous to obtain merely raises the average cash injection required to get one.

Ironically, therefore, it may put them out of the reach of duplicitous footballers - who may be rich, but are hardly billionaires - but not corporations like Trafigura, which obtained a superinjunction in order to cover up a corporate atrocity in the Ivory Coast. Moreover, the celebrity gossip industry bleeds more easily over the internet - superinjunctions are far more of a threat to serious investigative journalists, who rely on the resources of a major media outlet, and then may find their explosive scoops canned by a corrupt judiciary.

Prurience and prudishness

In a cameo role here is the matter of ‘bread and circuses’ - the crucial importance to the mass media of voyeuristic celebrity reportage. I dealt with this side of the question last week[1] and only mention it again to note that many commentators, in the mainstream media and also on the left, have used the ‘profile’ of the superinjunction (usually taken out by a prominent man to conceal alleged sexual indiscretions) to dismiss the whole matter as a minor skirmish in the ongoing legal guerrilla war between the tabloid press and its celebrity prey.

The wooden spoon goes to the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty, whose paper carried an article under the headline, ‘Why superinjunctions are good’.[2]
The arguments of its author, Pat Murphy (thankfully his group is far from united on this line), are frankly so preposterous, philistine and downright idiotic that they make the AWL’s increasingly delusional ramblings on the Libyan war look like the very soul of intellectual rigour. He claims that the whole scandal around superinjunctions has been got up by tabloids concerned about their profit margins; that, after all, the rich as well as the poor have a right to privacy.

“But that [right] would not be the only gain” if there were more court orders, Murphy assures us. “It might also mean that some of these celebrities will get less casual sex than they do now! If there was little chance of selling salacious (though usually tired and predictable) details to the press that would be a good thing. These stories are ‘bread and circuses’ of the worst kind, demeaning their readers almost as much as their victims.” The logic here is astounding: interest in celebrity gossip ‘demeans’ the reader, apparently; but nobody is more demeaned than our comrade Murphy, who in the same breath declares an interest in how much casual sex celebrities enjoy ...

More substantially, is the Marxist approach to ‘bread and circuses’ really to take away the bread and torch the circus? In the end, we too would be guilty of the King Canute error; such things are inevitable, and if we are not all distracted by Ryan Giggs’s sex life, we will be distracted by his incisive passes on the football field. The best argument against this prudish moralism is precisely this scandal - which has already well overstepped the bounds of celeb gossip and become a pitched battle between the judiciary and the fourth estate.

We must draw out the political stakes of this split in the ruling class, and the affronted media have done half the job for us, declaring it a matter of freedom of speech. Indeed it is: communists are in the tradition of the American constitution here, if not on many other matters, considering the right to free speech a foundation stone of democracy. We must go further - free speech must not be hostage to the whims of judges, and behind them the money-power of the ruling class.

The ‘right to privacy’ is not something to be ‘balanced’ against this, but a fig-leaf for capitalism’s abhorrence of democracy. The all-pervasiveness of celebrity voyeurism is an index not of inadequate legislation, but of our collective failure to build any kind of meaningful alternative to it. There is a need for a new kind of culture, in which people actively participate rather than passively consume whatever is thrown at them; a culture not divided institutionally between ‘high’ and ‘low’; and above all a culture in which the great and the good are not seen as a breed apart from the rest of us.

We must not be intimidated by the contemporary omnipresence of trash. Against the immense creative potential of the masses, the bourgeoisie’s bread and circuses do not stand a chance; unlocking that potential is a matter for politics, however, and those who would give quarter on free speech - and, more broadly, the fight against the capitalist state - only help the gossip-peddlers they so despise.


  1. ‘Hacks versus celebrities’, May 19.
  2. Solidarity May 18.