A British lawmaker defied a court ruling Monday by naming Ryan Giggs as the footballer who used an injunction to keep details of an alleged affair secret, escalating a row over privacy laws and the Internet.
Liberal Democrat MP John Hemming named the Manchester United player using his centuries-old right to freedom of speech in the House of Commons, despite an injunction which gave the married sportsman anonymity in the British media.
Hemming acted after a Scottish newspaper on Sunday published Giggs’s photograph, arguing that it could no longer support a gagging order while the footballer had been named by thousands of people on microblogging site Twitter.
"With about 75,000 people having named Ryan Giggs on Twitter it’s obviously impractical to imprison them all," Hemming told lawmakers.
Prime Minister David Cameron had also admitted on Monday that the situation was "unsustainable" and vowed to look into it.
Hemming was rebuked by the Speaker, but not before journalists had taken note — the media are entitled to report parliamentary proceedings without fear of being sued, and Hemming’s words were swiftly used nationwide to name Giggs.
Earlier Rupert Murdoch’s News Group Newspapers, which owns The Sun and The Times, had made a fresh attempt to get the gag order lifted at the High Court, arguing that with all the debate on Twitter it was "futile" to maintain the anonymity order.
But judge David Eady rejected their attempt, saying: "The court’s duty remains to try and protect the claimant, and particularly his family, from intrusion and harassment so long as it can."
News Group had used as part of their argument the indication by Cameron that he knew the identity of the footballer.
Giggs is expected to be in Manchester United’s squad for their Champions League final against Barcelona on Saturday where he could add to his record as the most decorated player in the history of the English game.
The prime minister had also admitted that something had to be done to address this "rather unsustainable" situation.
"It’s not fair on the newspapers if all the social media can report this and the newspapers can’t, so the law and the practice has got to catch up with how people consume media today," Cameron said in an interview with ITV.
He added: "But there’s a difficulty here because the law is the law and the judges must interpret what the law is."
In a bid to stem the online debate, Giggs’ lawyers announced Friday they were taking legal action to force Twitter to reveal the identity of users who broke the gagging order. But it only provoked more indignant Tweets.
Then, Scotland’s Sunday Herald became the first British newspaper or broadcaster to name the player who allegedly had an affair with reality television star Imogen Thomas.
The newspaper argued that it was not bound by the High Court, whose jurisdiction only extends to England and Wales.
In response to the row, Attorney General Dominic Grieve announced to lawmakers Monday that he was setting up a parliamentary committee to look into whether the current arrangements on privacy injunctions could be improved.
Conservative lawmaker John Whittingdale warned during the debate: "The actions by thousands of people of posting details on this on Twitter are in danger of making the law look an ass."
Hemming’s intervention has set up a confrontation with Britain’s top two judges, who specifically warned lawmakers on Friday to think twice before undermining court orders in parliament.
They spoke out after a member of the House of Lords on Thursday had revealed that Fred Goodwin, the former boss of the bailed-out Royal Bank of Scotland, had won an injunction banning publication of details of an alleged affair.
The High Court subsequently quashed the anonymity order that had been protecting him.
Lord Chief Justice Igor Judge questioned "whether it’s a good idea for our lawmakers to be flouting a court order just because they disagree with a court order or they disagree with the privacy law created by parliament."