Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Schillings - an apology

I must confess to being heartily sick of the whole "superinjunction" business - which is one reason why I'm so grateful to John Hemming MP for bringing the matter to a head yesterday. Otherwise it would have gone on for days. But I feel I owe Schillings an apology. On Sunday I criticised their decision to go after a journalist - identified by Hemming as Giles Coren - on the basis of some Tweets that had apparently identified another footballer (i.e. not Giggs) who had had an affair. I suggested that the predictable result of asking the court to refer the matter to the Attorney General for possible prosecution would be the unmasking - at least on Twitter - of the footballer in question.

That much has come to pass - the player's name was being widely discussed on the network even before Hemming named Giles yesterday, and is now freely available - although the affair has not yet matched the swelling chorus (literally so, in football grounds) that made the Giggs injunction ultimately futile. It did however give Hemming the opportunity to sound off, in Parliament and on the airwaves, on the danger of a secret court sentencing someone to prison without even naming him. Hemming compared the situation to that in "Burma", where it is illegal to criticise the king (he meant Thailand). The Mail, which had broken the story, for its part warned that "for the first time in centuries someone could be sent to prison in Britain and no one would be allowed to know who they were." An alarming prospect, if true.

Coren himself, it must be said, has handled the apparent threat with great style and good humour, Tweeting wittily about his impending spell at Her Majesty's pleasure. When Dominic Grieve, the Attorney General, denied that he had received any request from the courts, Giles even manage to feign disappointment. "As you can probably imagine, I was rather looking forward to being a free speech martyr. Now i'm just a paid pie-eater again."

There was only ever a remote prospect of Coren, or anyone else, being sent to jail for what were, at most, jokey allusions to the existence of an injunction. Now, though, it seems that there was never any truth the original story, splashed across the Mail on Sunday. None whatever. According to Oliver Wright in the Independent - in a report which appeared on the Indy website at 2:42 pm yesterday afternoon, almost two hours before John Hemming got to his feet - the footballer's lawyers have not asked for Coren or anyone else to be prosecuted.


Today comes an email from the grandly named Judicial Communications Office and a statement from Mr Justice Tugendhat (the judge involved in the case). In it he says: “I have not received any request to refer to the Attorney General in this case in which the claimant is referred to as TSE, and I have not referred it to him. At the hearing on 19th May of the case of TSE and another v News Group Newspapers Ltd counsel for the claimant, Mr Caldecott QC did not make any such request.”


For the purpose of comparison, here's what the Mail reported, in a story still available on the website:

In the first case of its kind, lawyers for the soccer star have persuaded a High Court judge to ask Attorney General Dominic Grieve QC to consider a criminal prosecution against the writer for breaching a privacy injunction. If Mr Grieve decides to issue contempt of court proceedings, the individual faces a prison sentence of up to two years.

...
On Thursday, one of Britain’s leading privacy judges, Mr Justice Tugendhat, was told that an unnamed ‘someone’ had used Twitter to identify the married footballer at the centre of a scandal concerning a sexual relationship with a model. The England footballer, known only by his court codename of TSE, instructed lawyers to ask the judge to pass the case on to the Attorney General’s office. And he agreed.


So again, apologies to Schillings. I assumed that even the Mail on Sunday would forbear from printing a story concerning serious ongoing court proceedings, about a ruling made by a high court judge, which had no factual basis whatsoever. Obviously I was wrong.