The dynamic of unintended consequence is often hilarious, and always instructive. In Britain in the last few weeks, Manchester United footballer Ryan Giggs has become the latest public figure to learn the hard way that suppressing secrets in the online age is like stamping on mercury. Giggs, it seems, slept with someone other than his wife, and decided that he would prefer not to share these tidings with the general public.
So, at doubtless considerable expense, he obtained a so-called super-injunction, a Kafkaesque legal instrument which not only prevents news media from reporting a story, but prevents them from reporting that they’re not allowed to report it.
Twenty years ago, this might have worked. Today, however – and even a footballer should have been able to work this out – Giggs would have attracted less notice to his infidelity, and at considerably less financial cost, if he’d announced it in a full-page newspaper advertisement, perhaps accompanied by some sort of billboard campaign. Giggs’ story got out, as stories will, and thousands of Twitter users took gleeful liberties with contempt of court. Liberal Democrat MP John Hemming lanced this bulging pustule of vindictive prurience by naming Giggs in parliament, the one place in Britain where free speech is unequivocally protected.
The established media seized this cue to dispense with the innuendo and allusion to which they had been hitherto restricted – some of it admittedly ingenious. They piled in on Giggs by name, and declared a great victory for truth.
This is fair enough, insofar as it will hopefully mean a beginning of the end of the absurdity of the super-injunction – a means by which the wealthy can buy immunity from scrutiny. But this is nevertheless a shabby, depressing test case. There are people entitled to address Giggs in tones of sanctimonious outrage, but they are a circle limited to Mrs Giggs, and perhaps some friends and family. Those who’ve joined the virtual lynch mob these last few weeks should take a few minutes to ponder how their own private lives would read if rendered in the mean, miserable, theatrically purse-lipped tones of British tabloids.
Those who find themselves posting sneering spite on Twitter simultaneously have the potential to become better informed about more subjects than any other generation. Yet, when offered this unprecedented opportunity to learn – largely free of charge, without even changing out of one’s pyjamas – millions use it to trade inane gossip.
In a sane, mature society, there would have been no need for Ryan Giggs to consult his lawyers in the first place – because in such a world, nobody except the people directly involved in his private life would consider it any of their damn business.