Giggs' alleged affair puts focus on privacy law

Martin Rogers
Yahoo! Sports

Manchester United's preparations for the Champions League final Saturday have been thrown into turmoil after veteran midfielder Ryan Giggs became embroiled in a controversy regarding an alleged affair with a reality television star.

Giggs, a married father of two and 12-time English Premier League champion, has been identified by multiple news outlets worldwide as the player who had taken out a legal injunction preventing British newspapers from publishing details of an alleged relationship with Big Brother contestant Imogen Thomas. The absurdity of Giggs' involvement being reported nearly everywhere but in his own country was not lost on member of British Parliament John Hemming.

Hemming used parliamentary privilege – a political mechanism whereby events taking place in the House of Commons can be mentioned regardless of an injunction – to point out that vast numbers of Twitter followers had tabbed Giggs as the man at the center of the scandal.

"With about 75,000 people having named Ryan Giggs on Twitter, it is obviously impractical to imprison them all," said Mr. Hemming on Monday, attempting to highlight the futility of privacy laws that allow this type of injunction.

Indeed, burgeoning social media and the globalization of information via the Internet are rendering all but impossible the practice of British celebrities – including soccer stars – suppressing media reporting of their private lives. Hemming's comments were reported in every major British newspaper, the first time those publications had been empowered to identify Giggs in relation to the scandal.

Giggs is one of the most famous people in Britain, having been the backbone of the United team for nearly 20 years. He was chosen the BBC Sports Personality of the Year in 2009 and on Saturday will attempt to win the Champions League for the third time when United takes on Barcelona at London's Wembley Stadium.

Despite the injunction, which was kept in place by a High Court judge Monday following a fresh attempt to have it lifted by News Group Newspapers, it did not take long for Giggs' name to become linked with the Thomas affair online.

Twitter users beamed thousands of comments associating Giggs and Thomas, and it was reported in English newspapers that the player is considering legal action against the American-based social media platform.

Last weekend Scotland's Sunday Herald newspaper published a photograph of Giggs on its front page with a thin banner reading "censored" covering his eyes. His image was still clearly discernible and he was named in an accompanying story as the man Twitter followers were identifying as being associated with the injunction pertaining to the alleged affair. From that point on, the wall of privacy had been breached. Scotland is not subject to the same privacy laws as England. Giggs was also linked to the scandal by newspapers in Spain and India.

Even so, English newspapers have been forbidden from revealing Giggs' role in the alleged affair since the injunction was enforced several weeks ago. Senior judge Mr. Justice Eady on Monday reaffirmed that there was no "legitimate public interest" in the information being published.

Some observers are predicting this episode will result in an overturning of the privacy law, and Prime Minister David Cameron admitted on British television Monday that the current state of affairs was "unfair" and "unsustainable."

In the United States, the constitutional right of free speech ensures that the private actions of public figures such as Tiger Woods can be reported by the media.

"The reality is that in some cases footballers, who routinely exploit the media for commercial gain, are using the law to cover up their own lies and present a false image to the public," said Rachel Welsh, an eminent British media lawyer, in an email to Yahoo! Sports last August, after two English soccer players had taken out injunctions to conceal extramarital affairs. "An injunction preventing publication is a draconian measure and further limits the freedom of expression of the media.

"In the UK, public figures already have the chance to claim substantial damages if a media outlet is found to have breached their privacy or published false information which affects their reputation. This gives them even more protection. It is a situation that would be seen as quite unusual for Americans, as there is nothing like this [restriction] on free speech in the USA."

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