A mighty battle is shaping up between the British government and the American-controlled social networking sites, primarily Twitter and Facebook.
The government of Prime Minister David Cameron is committed to extending the harsh libel and privacy laws, with which it attempts to control the notorious tabloids, to social networking sites. The sites not only carry salacious gossip, but also provide tools for circumventing laws on the books for newspapers.
This state of hostilities between the government and the social media is a new front in a war that has raged in Britain since the first tabloids appeared in the 1920s.
The appetite for gossip in Britain is at the heart of the government's schemes to discipline the media, or at least hold it accountable, for the violation of the privacy of the famous, infamous and titled. Notwithstanding Lindsay Lohan, Charlie Sheen, Jennifer Aniston and assorted American glitterati adorning the supermarket tabloids, the British passion for the sex lives of the rich and famous dwarfs its American equivalents by orders of magnitude.
In turn the energy, resourcefulness, deceit and intrusion of the British tabloids is appalling. No electronic device, trick or bribe is overlooked in the endless campaigns to shame the famous, embarrass the wayward and, in general, romp around their boudoirs and places of assignation.
The tradition of paying informants – maids, butlers, nurses and old lovers –handsomely for lurid details (or anything that can be made to sound lurid) means that the prominent love at their own risk. Yes, it is sex, far more than money or corruption, that sells the British tabloids; and sales push up the revenues. The ability with modern technology to eavesdrop on private conversations has made things worse.
Despite the toughness of British libel law, the battle rages, led by two of a bunch of tabloids, the daily Sun and the weekly News of the World, both owned by Rupert Murdoch's News Corp, the parent company of Fox and The Wall Street Journal in the United States.
It is not that these two are more amoral than the rest, but rather they are better at the game than their competitors. They pay more to informants and the paparazzi than the rest.
For these scoundrels, the United Kingdom in general and England in particular, are target-rich. It starts at the top with the monarchy. Yes, the tabloids cheered the royal wedding but they are ready – indeed, anxious – for the first hint of an indiscretion, domestic discord or even wardrobe malfunction. Then there are the aristocrats, often ignored, but center stage at the suggestion of sexual impropriety.
On to the rest, the footballers, the television personalities, the movie stars. Know what “bonking” is? It is the word favored by the tabloids for sex, as in footballer Y is bonking actress X.
No detail is too private or sick-making not to be rushed to millions of breakfast tables. To keep things spiced up, The Sun has a young, busty woman, naked to the waist on Page Three most days. Helps the corn flakes go down.
To protect the private lives of public figures, the British courts enjoin newspapers from publishing specific reports, if the victim is forewarned — and the preemptive “gagging” orders are feared and loathed in the media. They are so restrictive that it is illegal even to say that one has been taken out. But these themselves may have rebounded against the government the courts and the celebrities.
Frustrated journalists and gossip lovers have taken to Twitter and sometimes Facebook to list, often erroneously, which celebrities are hiding behind preemptive injunctions. The implication of such outing is that there are dark goings on.
Now celebrities are taking to the Internet to deny that they have taken out restraining orders or have a need to. So the government is ham-fistedly going after the social networks. It wants them to reveal the names of the Twitter and Facebook account holders.
As with a lot of regulation, the government and courts have made things worse. But if it goes after the American firms that provide Internet services in American courts, they will run into the First Amendment.
Even the European Court has sided in the past with the press. Generally governments are suspected of wanting to curb political speech and investigation, not tales from the bedchamber. Britain rules the sheets, apparently. – For the Hearst-New York Times Syndicate