A few weeks ago I took part in a discussion at one of the big internet companies on something called ‘the right to be forgotten.’
The notion – which the giants of the web are not terribly keen on – is that information on the web, even if you put it there yourself, can be removed after a certain time. Here is one part of the argument – if young people see nothing wrong in plastering details of their lives all over their Facebook pages as teenagers, they might want to think again when they’re going for jobs, or getting married a few years on. Likewise for wrongdoers, we have a system where criminal convictions are eventually ‘spent’, and there should be some kind of modern day equivalent for the web.
It was an interesting discussion on a subject I had not really thought much about, coming as I do from a background in newspapers where, ‘once it’s in the cuttings, it’s there forever’.
But the issue was brought into stark, and frankly spectacular relief yesterday by the Liberal Democrat MP, John Hemming, who told the Commons that Sir Fred Goodwin, ex chief executive of the Royal Bank of Scotland and in many ways a symbol of the banking crisis, had won a ‘superinjunction’ to stop media outlets referring to his former role.
I don’t know if my blog is a ‘media outlet’ under the terms of the superinjunction, but I assume from this that I would be taking a risk to say ‘former banker Fred Goodwin’, except in the context of Mr Hemming’s contribution to the Commons under privilege. If that sounds crazy, that’s because it is.
David Cameron said regularly with regard to Andy Coulson that ‘everyone deserves a second chance’, and Fred Goodwin can perhaps be included in that.
But he did help preside over a banking disaster, the impact of which continues to be felt, and the lessons of which are still properly to be analysed and learned. It is harder to do that if newspapers and others cannot refer to his past without fear of the ruling of some anonymous judge being brought into play.
Critical as I often am of newspapers, it is not difficult to make the case that they have themselves to blame for the wrath of judges tired of hearing that the pursuit of celebrity tittle tattle is in the public interest. However, this is ridiculous. The FT editorial on the subject this morning says that superinjunctions are a menace to democracy and should be scrapped.
I agree with that, and agree too that the way this area of the law has developed has been haphazard. Eccentric might be another word. It will only be resolved through Parliament taking a fresh look at privacy, and getting the balance right in a way that most newspapers and most judges appear unable to.