Judges have gone too far with gagging orders, says British public

Poll shows that seven out of 10 people believe courts have been too willing to grant injunctions to celebrities

Nigel Morris
Wednesday 01 June 2011 00:00

The public believes that judges have been too ready to issue gagging orders to enable celebrities and rich business people to protect their privacy, an opinion poll for The Independent discloses today.

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People appear to have little sympathy with those high-profile film, television and sports stars who have resorted to the courts to stop embarrassing details of their private lives reaching the public domain, according to the ComRes survey.

However, people also think ministers need to get to grips with the super-injunction crisis and legislate to regulate social networking sites which publish sometimes unfounded rumours about celebrity philandering.

Almost three-quarters of voters (70 per cent) agreed that courts had been "too willing to grant injunctions to enable the rich and famous to protect their private lives", with just 25 per cent disagreeing.

The Independent last week disclosed that at least 333 gagging orders have been granted over the last five years. They included 69 instances of the names of high-profile individuals being protected; among them were 28 men accused of extra-marital affairs.

The ComRes survey finds that the public is in little doubt where its sympathies lie in such cases. Nearly two-thirds (65 per cent) believed that "celebrities and sports stars owe their lifestyle to their public profile so they should not complain about intrusion into their private lives", while 30 per cent disagreed.

Although voters disapprove of the efforts that well-known figures make to prevent damaging headlines, they also believe by a narrower majority that privacy rules have failed to keep pace with the rapid growth of the internet. The issue has been highlighted by the widespread use of Twitter in recent weeks to reveal the names of celebrities covered by injunctions.

Just over half (54 per cent) agreed the Government "should ensure greater regulation of the internet and social media like Twitter to protect people's rights to privacy", with 40 per cent disagreeing with that statement. Support for tougher curbs on material published online is higher among Labour and Liberal Democrat voters (each 58 per cent) than Conservative voters (50 per cent).

The controversy over super-injunctions first emerged when lawyers for the multi-national company Trafigura, which denied responsibility for dumping toxic waste off the west African coast, argued that the terms of its order even precluded journalists from reporting that a Labour MP had tabled a parliamentary question on the issue.

The recent furore has been fed by revelations of a slew of injunctions protecting cheating footballers and screen personalities. It emerged yesterday that a Twitter user has set up a new account claiming to expose stars who have obtained injunctions to prevent reporting about their private lives.

David Cameron has acknowledged that the current situation is unsustainable and has appointed a committee of MPs and Lords to consider how to improve the "unfair" situation of newspapers being bound by injunctions while foreign-based websites can ignore them.

But Lord Neuberger, the Master of the Rolls, has said allegations on Twitter had "by no means the same degree of intrusion into privacy as the story being emblazoned on the front pages of newspapers".

ComRes found the public was split over the merits of MPs and peers taking advantage of parliamentary privilege to name people protected by super-injunctions. Sir Fred Goodwin, the former Bank of Scotland chief executive, was unmasked in the Lords, while the Manchester United star Ryan Giggs was named by the Liberal Democrat MP John Hemming. Forty-four per cent of voters said parliamentarians were right to take that step, with slightly more (48 per cent) disagreeing. Distinct divisions of opinion also emerged by age. Fifty-six per cent of 18- to 24-year-olds backed the use of parliamentary privilege under those circumstances, compared with 36 per cent of people aged 65 and over.

ComRes telephoned a random sample of 1001 adults across Great Britain on 27th – 29th May 2011. Data were weighted to be representative of all adults and by past vote recall. ComRes is a member of the British Polling Council and abides by its rules. Full tables at www.comres.co.uk

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