Ryan Giggs case a pointer to reform

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 28 May, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 28 May, 2011, 12:00am


Striking a balance between freedom of speech and the protection of privacy and reputation can test the values of societies that hold these things dear. It does not help when the law of defamation is complex and predates the emergence of internet forums that enable anyone to make public comments about another person. A current controversy in Britain resonates here.

Ryan Giggs has long been a star player for Manchester United football team, well-known to fans in this city. His name is emblazoned on many United shirts worn by young Hong Kong fans. He is therefore a public role model marketed to children and parents by United's international merchandising operation.

He nonetheless has the right to privacy. Married with two children, he recently obtained a court order that stopped a tabloid newspaper reporting an alleged extramarital affair and prohibited any mention that such a ban existed. This fanned controversy about the use of this so-called super-injunction by the rich and famous to prevent publication of unwelcome stories, prompting one Twitter user to name Giggs as one of them. Giggs has lodged a lawsuit against San Francisco-based Twitter and unknown users. Ironically, this has backfired, with tens of thousands of users now having named him on the social network. A British MP, observing that they could not all be imprisoned for contempt of court, has named him under parliamentary privilege in a debate on privacy laws, freeing the media to follow suit. The case illustrates the difficulty of striking the right balance between protecting freedom of expression and people's privacy and reputations. It is compounded by grey areas in British libel laws that are mirrored in Hong Kong. Giggs' right to privacy is not diminished by celebrity status. But publication of material that is relevant to the role-model image projected to parents and children might arguably be of public interest.

British Prime Minister David Cameron rightly says the law should catch up with the way ordinary people use media now. His government has unveiled draft reforms to defamation law that seek to protect the expression of honest opinion. An individual claiming defamation would have to demonstrate actual harm to reputation. Defences would include public interest, honest opinion (as opposed to fair comment) and truth. It echoes a private members' bill drafted last year by human rights lawyer Lord Lester, which attempted to codify the balance between free expression and the right to reputation by setting out the defence of 'responsible publication on matters of public interest'.

Thankfully, wealthy 'libel tourists' who use British courts to stifle free speech are not an issue in Hong Kong. But our laws, which are similar to Britain's, are just as ripe for reform. Any reforms in Britain should be watched with a view to making them clearer in a new era of communications and less likely to inhibit freedom of expression.