A recent Guardian editorial on the matter of balancing parliamentary privilege and responsible behaviour concluded thusly:
When parliament last examined the question of privilege, the internet was still in its infancy. Social media were embryonic. And the ink on the Human Rights Act was barely dry. The possibility that parliamentary privilege might intersect with the online world and the role of the press in all its complexity was not even imagined. At the very least, a new select committee examination is now required. And so, inescapably, are some clearer new responsibilities to go with MPs’ ancient rights.
This was in response to the recent naming in Parliament of a prominent footballer by MP John Hemmings in defiance of a super-injunction that is still in force. Hemmings used parliamentary privilege to name the footballer and argued that he had a right to do so because the footballer’s name had already been revealed by a Scottish newspaper (which argued it wasn’t bound by the restrictions of an injunction issued by an English court) as well as in papers from other countries and, more importantly, by 75,000 users on Twitter. It wasn’t the first time Hemmings had revealed the names of persons covered by a super injunction.
Parliamentary privilege grants MPs virtually unlimited freedom of speech. As explained in Erskine May:
Subject to the rules of order in debate, a Member may state whatever he thinks fit in debate, however offensive it may be to the feelings, or injurious to the character, of individuals; and he is protected by his privilege from any action for libel, as well as from any other question or molestation. (23rd ed., p. 96)
The problem is that while the press won the right back in the 18th century to report on what is said in Parliament, it is protected by qualified privilege only. Media reporting of Parliamentary proceedings is protected by the Parliamentary Papers Act 1840. This Act provides absolute immunity from civil or criminal proceedings for Hansard and any other publication of Parliament. It also provides qualified privilege in civil and criminal proceedings for individuals who publish a summary of material published in Hansard, as long as this is done in good faith and without malice.
Thus, when Hemmings named the footballer in question, this raised an important dilemma for English newspapers: the terms of the injunction barred them from naming the footballer, yet they had the right to report on what was said in Parliament. There is no judicial decision as to whether a summary of material published in Hansard which intentionally had the effect of frustrating a court order would be considered by the courts to be in good faith and without malice.
The traditional press are also confronted with the reality of information subject to a court injunction becoming public knowledge via social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter, while the press must respect the terms set forth in these various super injunctions.
This is just one example of the growing conflict between the law and the realities of social media and the Internet. I recently blogged about a section of Canada’s Elections Act which makes it illegal to publish election results from one part of the country before polls have closed in other parts of the country. This was easily enforceable back in the days of only radio and newspapers, and even with the advent of television, but it becomes much more difficult – if not impossible – to enforce online.
Similarly, Canadian judges grant publication bans on evidence presented at bail hearings and preliminary inquiries if the accused asks for one. During the trial, anything that is said or presented in court while the jury is away cannot be reported. Only after the trial can the press reveal “what the jury didn’t see.” However, here again, social media and the Internet are presenting a challenge to such measures, such as this recent case involving Facebook, and this case involving the Internet in general.
Few people will dispute the fact that the Internet and social media present major challenges to enforcing certain laws, or sections of laws, that predate the advent of instantaneous global communication.The footballer named by MP Hemmings is trying to sue Twitter, a move described as futile by Mark Stephens, a senior media lawyer at British law firm Finers Stephens Innocent:
“This is not only scraping the bottom of the barrel, this is beneath the barrel. This [injunction] information is already available on servers outside of this jurisdiction and on website outside this jurisdiction,” he said.
“You would have to be a moron in a hurry to suggest to this footballer that he throw good money and publicly excoriate himself yet further.”
In an op ed piece in the Guardian, Richard Hillgrove, a business and political public relations consultant, argues that Twitter and other social media cannot be allowed to operate outside the law. However, what he proposes strikes me to be as futile as the attempt to sue Twitter:
Clearly, they are going to have to introduce a delay mechanism so that content can be checked before it goes up. There will have to be a completely different structure, which will be difficult when the whole thing about Twitter is its spontaneity.
The ancient tradition of parliamentary privilege is not immune to scrutiny and reconsideration either. A report published recently by a committee headed by Lord Neuberger, master of the rolls (the second most senior judge in England and Wales), Report of the Committee on Super-Injunctions: Super-Injunctions, Anonymised Injunctions and Open Justice, concluded that while injunctions cannot bind members of Parliament during debates in the House of Commons or House of Lords, those who report on those debates are in a less certain position:
Where media reporting of Parliamentary proceedings does not attract qualified privilege, it is unclear whether it would be protected at common law from contempt proceedings if it breached a court order. There is such protection in defamation proceedings for honest, fair and accurate reporting of Parliamentary proceedings. There is no reported case which decides whether the common law protection from contempt applies. There is an argument that the common law should adopt the same position in respect of reports of Parliamentary proceedings as it does in respect of reports of court proceedings.
While parliamentary privilege grants MPs and Lords almost absolute freedom of speech, there are some restrictions on this freedom, such as the sub judice rule. Simply put, matters awaiting the adjudication of a court of law should not be brought forward in debate. You can read the current resolution governing matters sub judice here. While parliamentary committees have revisited the matter of sub judice in 2005 and 2006, they’ve not examined the issue of the impact of social media and the Internet on matters before the courts, and the obvious conflicts this would present for both parliamentarians and the media alike.
As the Joint Select Committee on Parliamentary Privilege concluded back in 1999:
The privilege of freedom of speech in Parliament places a corresponding duty on every member to use the freedom responsibly. The duty is all the greater now that the debates of the two Houses may be broadcast live anywhere in the world. (…)
Free speech is the most important parliamentary privilege and members should be careful not to abuse it. Ultimately the responsibility lies with the individual member. We cannot improve on the words of the Commons procedure committee of session 1988-89:
‘We reiterate that the privilege of freedom of speech is an essential protection for members in carrying out their duties. There is no point in this privilege unless it provides guarantees against attempts from outside to control what members choose to say in the House. However, privilege carries with it responsibilities as well as rights; and those responsibilities have to be exercised within the rules laid down by the House and in conformity with the standards it expects of its members. Irresponsible or reckless use of privilege can cause great harm to outside individuals who enjoy no legal redress and, in some circumstances, could be prejudicial to the national interest. The strongest safeguard against so-called abuses is the self-discipline of individual members. This means, for instance, that a member should take steps, before making a potentially damaging accusation against a named individual, to ensure not only that evidence exists but that it comes from a normally reliable source. This does not imply that a member needs to have evidence that would satisfy a court, but that he should act on the basis of something firmer than mere rumour or supposition.’
Needless to say, these are all very complex issues, and the UK and Canada are far from being alone in confronting them. Balancing privacy rights with freedom of the press, parliamentary privilege and the free-for-all that is the Internet and social media will undoubtedly remain one of the biggest challenges facing governments for some time to come.