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UK all a-Twitter as celebrity secrets are laid bare

PAUL HACKETT / Reuters, file

Jemima Khan was unwittingly swept up in the 'super injunctions' Twitter scandal in the U.K.

By Ian Johnston, msnbc.com

LONDON – In England, wealthy celebrities facing allegations of affairs, sado-masochism, sexual harassment and the like have a simple way to avoid being embarrassed by a blaze of bad publicity: go to a court, pay about $100,000 in legal fees, and get an order preventing journalists from running the story.

Or rather it was that simple until a Twitter user decided to risk a prison sentence by revealing some of the legally protected secrets contained in the orders or "super injunctions" as they are popularly known.

On Tuesday, Twitter had its highest ever number of U.K. Internet visits, according to analyst Experian Hitwise, as the news spread like wildfire. Getting the lowdown on scandals so juicy that they had to be officially hushed-up proved irresistible to vast numbers of Brits.

And by Thursday, the tweeter had attracted more than 100,000 followers, all of whom could possibly be prosecuted and similarly sent to prison if the tweets show up on their page.

But, in what some are hailing as a victory for American-style freedom of speech, the courts have yet to take any action against what appears to be a flagrant breach of the contempt of court laws covering England and Wales.

Jeremy Hunt, culture secretary in the British government's cabinet, spoke about "this crazy situation where information is available freely online, which you are not able to print in newspapers."

"Technology, and Twitter in particular, is making a mockery of the privacy laws," he said at a lunch with journalists Tuesday, according to an emailed statement from a government spokesman.

The anonymity provided by Twitter, its ability to spread news quickly, and the fact that it sits outside the jurisdiction of English courts, appears to be why it has taken the lead in challenging the injunctions.  

Britain's leading publicist, Max Clifford, told msnbc.com that he was representing three of those identified by the tweeter: the "famous actor" who allegedly had sex with a prostitute; the prostitute, Helen Wood; and former beauty queen Imogen Thomas, who allegedly had an affair with a famous, married British sports star.

'Very upset' actor
Under the terms of the court orders, the actor and sports star cannot be named, but the orders don’t prevent the naming of the women.

The actor, whose Wikipedia page is currently protected from editing, was "very upset" about being identified, Clifford told msnbc.com.

"His name has been mentioned on Twitter – along with lots of other people whose names aren't true – and he's not getting the protection he thought (he was getting)," the publicist said.

However, the actor had subsequently recovered his composure and was "doing absolutely fine," Clifford added. "Because of the names on Twitter that are wrong, he's more relaxed about it now." 

When asked if there was any chance of an interview, Clifford said the actor was keeping a low profile and "would faint" at the idea.
Would the bad publicity affect his career?

"No, absolutely not," Clifford said. "I think probably 50 percent of the nation are having affairs. Unless you are the Archbishop of Canterbury, the pope or the queen, it doesn't really make too much difference."

Perhaps surprisingly, even Clifford thinks so-called super injunctions are wrong.

"You cannot justify super injunctions because they are only available to rich people. That's just not democratic," he said. "Most people don't have 50,000, 60,000 pounds [$81,000, $97,000] to spend."

Staying out the spotlight has been the strategy adopted by most of those named by the tweeter.

The wife of one told msnbc.com, "I don't think he'd want to comment." She added, "I'm not making any comment.”

'Vile hate tweets'
However, one person named as being involved in a super injunction, socialite and human rights campaigner Jemima Khan, has been all over the British newspapers. But only because the information about her is wrong and therefore it can be written about in newspapers without fear that the journalists will be sent to prison for contempt of court.

"The proof that I haven't got a super injunction is that the papers have printed my name (and no one else's – for fear of being sued)," Khan wrote on Twitter.

She also wrote about being "trapped in a bloody nightmare," receiving "vile hate tweets." She hopes that the people who "made up this story" – alleging that she appeared in intimate photographs with a married TV presenter –  realize "that my sons will be bullied at school because of it."

But while some complain about the damage done by false rumors, others believe Twitter is bringing American-style freedom of speech to the U.K.

"I think it is. And it is to be applauded for doing so," leading media lawyer Mark Stephens said. "I think the [U.K.] judges and social media have been in a race and the judges have come [in] comprehensively second. I think people are beginning to realize that more and more."

Speaking to msnbc.com by phone from Montreal, Stephens said "super injunctions" – which he said were more accurately described as secret injunctions – had been obtained in closed-door hearings, meaning that claims submitted as evidence could not be challenged.

"I think secret justice is a bad thing," he said.

While the public might not need to know about the sexual antics of sports stars, Stephens cited the case of a sportsman who had unprotected sex with a prostitute while his girlfriend was pregnant.

"The court connived to prevent that information going to her (the girlfriend)," Stephens said, meaning she was unable to protect herself and her unborn child from the risk of a sexually transmitted disease.

"That seems to me to be immoral," Stephens said. "Many of these men have had unprotected sex with a third party, potentially compromising the sexual health of their partner."

The English courts and the people who took out the injunctions do not appear to be trying to prosecute, but Stephens said it was possible that legal action could be taken against the tweeter as "their electronic fingerprints will be all over this.

He said anyone re-tweeting what was said was also committing contempt of court and even someone who simply followed the tweeter would also being doing so – if one of the tweets appeared in the feed on their Twitter page. (Many people began following the tweeter after the now infamous posts went out – in the hope that there will be future revelations). 

However, Stephens is confident enough that the tweeter’s followers are not at risk of a spell behind bars that he became one himself, stressing he was "interested in it from a legal perspective."

"The court couldn't deal with 100,000 people," he said.

There is talk in government of reforming the law to take into account the effect of social media.

But Stephens, who has been representing WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, said this was unlikely to have any consequences for Twitter, as it is based in California.

He dismissed the idea of fencing off parts of Twitter from the U.K. or attempting some kind of censorship.

"You cannot do that, outside of being a totalitarian regime. It's very difficult to do," he said.

Instead, England's laws would have to bend to a new reality.

"When people have asked me for a super injunction, I've said, 'One, you are painting a target on your back. Two, I can't guarantee it will be secret. And three, it's going to cost 50,000 to 70,000 pounds [$81,000 to $113,000].

"Even a rather thick footballer [soccer player] is going to understand there's not much point."

Editor's note: Msnbc.com was advised by a media lawyer not to publish details of the injunctions as the writer lives in London and is therefore subject to English law.

Newspapers in England have not published the username of the tweeter for fear of prosecution. 

Some of the information in the tweets is not true. The tweet mentioning Jemima Khan is wrong, and a legal source told msnbc.com that the injunction about the actor does not mention use of a sex toy. There may be other inaccuracies.