- Associated Press - Monday, May 23, 2011

LONDON — Britain’s scandal-hungry news media, an outspoken parliamentarian and thousands of ordinary people using Twitter dealt a body blow to an institution of British justice, flouting a gag order imposed by one of the country’s top judges.

Soccer star Ryan Giggs had been granted an injunction preventing the media from publishing accusations that he had an affair with reality television contestant Imogen Thomas, but over the past few days his identity has increasingly appeared across the Internet.

The gag order left newspapers frustrated, as Twitter users swapped jokes about the sportsman’s alleged indiscretion.

The journalists knew his identity. The soccer fans knew. Even Prime Minister David Cameron knew, telling morning television that it was “rather unsustainable where newspapers can’t print something everyone else is talking about.”

On Monday British lawmaker John Hemming ignored the gag order and identified Manchester United soccer star in Parliament. Members of Parliament benefit from absolute immunity, meaning they have free rein to say what they wish and shrug off the threat of contempt of court.

Britain’s media had largely obeyed the gag order, relying instead on knowing references in gossip columns and blacked-out profile shots. But the pressure had been building all weekend, with hundreds of tweets an hour identifying Giggs as the man behind the gag order. Soccer fans openly taunted him about the scandal at a recent game. One journalist even blurted out part of the man’s name in a broadcast interview.

The case increasingly became a touchstone for arguments over what Britons know as “superinjunctions” - sweeping legal measures that ban journalists from writing about something or even writing about the fact that they cannot write about it.

The injunction that had been at work in the soccer star’s case was more properly known as an “anonymized injunction,” which meant that media organizations could write about him, so long as they kept his name a secret.

Gag orders aren’t necessarily devoted to tawdry personal matters. But of the 30 or so such injunctions awarded in Britain since 2008, all but three have gone to men. That has lead some legal commentators to suggest that the injunctions are being used by wealthy and powerful men to keep their apparent sexual indiscretions from being aired in public.

On Sunday, Scotland’s Sunday Herald became the first British newspaper to flout the injunction, publishing a thinly censored photograph of the soccer star on its front page.

Only his eyes were blacked out, and beneath the sportsman’s clearly recognizable face, the Herald wrote that “everyone knows” this was the star “accused of using the courts to keep allegations of a sexual affair secret.”

“The issue is one of freedom of information … ,” the paper said.

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