In what has been described as the "Spycatcher moment" of the internet era, a single user of Twitter has brought the culture of the super-injunction to its knees by drawing nearly 55,000 followers to a list of celebrities alleged to have links with the secretive gagging orders.
The frenzy of activity on the micro-blogging site yesterday makes the super-injunctions as ineffective as the ban placed on publication of the autobiography of the MI5 officer Peter Wright in the mid 1980s. The ban on Spycatcher was lifted in 1988 when the law lords realised that overseas publication of the book made a gagging restriction pointless.
A mystery Twitter user whose online identity cannot be revealed for legal reasons posted half a dozen tweets in quick succession, with the implication that each of the named celebrities was the subject of a super-injunction. Ironically, the story took off when Jemima Khan, who was wrongly included on the list, sent out her own tweets to her more than 60,000 followers alerting them to the "untrue and upsetting" rumours. She described as a "bloody nightmare" the fact that she had been falsely linked to an "injunction" which the mystery tweeter had claimed had been taken out by Jeremy Clarkson banning mention of intimate photographs of the pair. Ms Khan warned that "my sons will be bullied at school because of it" and later told her followers that Mr Clarkson and his wife Frances had sent her supportive texts, dismissing rumours of the existence of such photographs.
Rumours surrounding the identities of those who have taken out super-injunctions have circulated on Twitter and other websites for weeks but the speed with which the latest accusations have been publicised has taken the issue to a critical juncture.
Last night, the media lawyer Mark Stephens predicted that the manner in which information had been shared on Twitter would dissuade further celebrities from taking out similar gagging orders. "It's the beginning of the end. Even a rather thick footballer is going to think twice before handing £100,000 to a greedy lawyer if the greedy lawyer can't guarantee that it will actually stay secret," he said.
He compared yesterday's developments to the Spycatcher case in which newspapers had sent journalists to New York to buy copies of the book. Business travellers and tourists followed suit. "In the end anyone who had a friend visiting America was placing an order and they were coming in by the box load," said Mr Stephens, recalling why the ban was lifted. "We are in exactly the same territory [with the Twitter case] only much, much further in because 55,000 people is a large premiership ground full of people all telling the people they know."
During the Spycatcher ban, the Daily Mirror published a front page with pictures of Britain's senior judges and the headline "You fools". The Economist published a blank page with an apology to its British readers for the absence of a review that had been printed in all its other editions. "The law is an ass," the apology concluded.
Yesterday, the prostitute who slept with an actor whose name is protected by a super-injunction claimed she knew of another high-profile figure with three gagging orders against separate women. Helen Wood, 23, told Victoria Derbyshire on BBC Radio 5 Live: "There's a list as long as my arm of men who have injunctions out on girls. There are injunctions going on everywhere."
The Twitter outburst comes ahead of a report on the use of super-injunctions, due to be published next month by a committee led by the Master of the Rolls.
The disclosures exclusively referred to cases of a sexual nature, and could be damaging for those who are defending freedom of expression for the media at a time when British judges have been accused of introducing a privacy law through their interpretation of human rights legislation. Padraig Reidy, news editor of Index on Censorship, commented that many Twitter users were critical of the prurient nature of the cases linked to injunctions. "If privacy vs freedom of expression issues are simply reduced to who is sleeping with whom, we lose sight of the more important cases where there is a real need for whistle-blowing, and acceptable breaches of privacy where there is a strong public interest."
By last night, Twitter, which is reluctant to delete any posts from its site, had still not disabled the account at the centre of the row. But, according to Mr Stephens, the author of the tweets was likely to face serious punishment. Those who have been wrongly identified may sue for libel. In other cases, retribution will be taken by the courts. "The person who has committed this contempt of court will be best advised to take their toothbrush because they will probably be going to Pentonville jail," he said. "Their emails used to upload this information are being traced, I imagine, as we speak."