Imagine a society that denies a vote to half of its people and where a person ceases to exist after signing a marriage vow. Saudi Arabia? Somalia? Eastleigh in Hampshire? No, imagine England and Wales prior to 1870.
In Oliver Twist, Mr Bumble is told that “the law supposes that your wife acts under your direction”. Charles Dickens, adopting the voice of the hen-pecked Mr Bumble, took the opportunity to rail against the law of Coverture; legislation established in common law since the time of Henry II. Bumble, the pompous custodian of the workhouse, with a characteristic mangling of the English language, said:
“If the law supposes that…the law is a ass – a idiot. If that’s the eye of the law, the law is a bachelor; and the worst I wish the law is that his eye may be opened by experience – by experience.”
The main theme in Oliver Twist is Dickens vilification of the Poor Laws which, in his view, condemned destitute children to a life of crime or an early and violent death. Thank goodness that those days are long gone but, with the present awful government, be concerned that they may return. Be thankful too that Coverture was repealed partly as a result of Dickens ridicule. Coverture, based on feudal Norman law, assumes that once married, a woman forfeits any legal status, the right to own property and control of any income. The law regards a married couple as one person with the husband as master and the wife as a chattel. In helping to get rid of it, Dickens played a blinder.
If he were alive today, Charlie would love Twitter and even possibly the wretched Facebook. He would certainly be blogging against injustice and be the first to tweet “I’m Spartacus” in the face of an outdated and unworkable law. So we come to the tawdry tale of a Mr Ryan Giggs OBE; sportsman, family man and the object of unhealthy interest by the gutter press and its readership. His fallibility became evident when he, after being unable to resist the pneumatic bliss of bonking a big brother bimbo, took out a High Court injunction to gag the Sun from publishing the sordid kiss and tell details ghost written for the starlet. The brouhaha that has ensued gives not only an insight into the intelligence of Mr Giggs, the morality of Ms Imogen Thomas and the low life that is Max Clifford, but nicely sets up a competition more important than even the Champions League. Mrs Giggs, it seems, found out about the scandal via Twitter.
Usually, the indirections of minor celebrities end up in the recycle bin along with Liberal Democrat promises, Conservative concern and Labour policy, but this one exposes a simmering animosity between the judiciary and parliament. As the Giggs tittle-tattle raged across Twitter, the Lord Chief Justice, Baron Igor Judge (not even Dickens could have invented such a name) was warning MPs not to use parliamentary privilege to break injunctions. By now, the law was sporting long ears and a tail and was being hit with a stick by Afghan tribesmen.
Then, serial adulterer, babe magnet and Liberal Democrat MP for Yardley, John Hemming, girds himself up to his full height and, using parliamentary privilege, names Ryanair Gigaport in the commons in direct contravention of the High Court injunction. Those still awake in the house gasped as Mr Speaker put him in his place. Too late, the cat was out of the wheelie-bin.
Hemming has some form on parliamentary privilege having outed Fred the Shred Goodwin as the subject of a similar injunction. Presumably, the self-promoting light-weight Hemming will relish the publicity created when his long suffering wife appears in court next month accused of kidnapping the cat of one of his latest mistresses. Not even Dickens could invent such a plot but Hemming must be pleased that Coverture, “where the law supposes that your wife acts under your direction”, has been repealed.
Forgetting for the moment the titanic clash between Manchester United and the mighty Barcelona, the real battle is between privacy and freedom of speech with unelected law lords in the red corner and ambitious MPs in the blue, yellow and…err… red corners. The crucial difference here is the distinction between public interest and what is interesting to the public. A very wealthy world-class footballer, watched and admired by millions, is obviously of interest to the public, but his extra-marital affairs are unlikely to threaten national security. Similarly, a kidnapped cat is interesting but does not become important unless an MP claims money from the public purse to provide councilling for the traumatised moggy. Having upped the stakes, the battle lines are now drawn between those that make judgement on the law and those that make the law in the first place. It could turn nasty.
Rendered stubbornly immobile by the controversy, bad ass Cameron did what all political leaders do when devoid of any inkling of reality; he announced the formation of a committee. This cross-party group will “look” at privacy law and the granting of injunctions and will report “sometime in the autumn”. It is clear that both government and judiciary don’t have a clue about social media and have no idea how to react to it. With events changing by the second and with the likes of Twitter influencing those events in real time, “sometime in the autumn” is a long, long way away.
The printed press, already resentful of social media, took to braying “not fair” at the loss of their monopoly on muck raking which prompted the doyen of bigoted bile Richard Littlejohn to describe everything on Twitter as “wrong or motivated by malice”. Coming from such a vile human being, users of Twitter should take this as a compliment and be justly proud. There is an almost symmetrical beauty in the fact that on the day the Sun had its legal challenge to the Giggs injunction rejected, John Prescott won the right for a judicial review of phone hacking at the News of the World, the Sun’s stable mate. By now, the law has been saddled and is being led up and down the beach at Blackpool.
The full force of the law fell upon former Labour minister Elliot Morley who was quite rightly banged up for 16 months after Mr Justice Saunders regarded the fiddling of £30,000 of MP expenses as “blatant dishonesty”. Strangely, former Liberal Democrat minister David Laws, after fiddling £56,000 of MP expenses, remains an MP, a free man and, astonishingly, likely to return to cabinet. “By experience”, as Mr Bumble observed.
Spare a thought too for another Liberal Democrat minister, Chris Huhne. Family man, adulterer and MP for Eastleigh in Hampshire, he will no doubt be relieved that Coverture legislation has been repealed as the law no longer “supposes that your wife acts under your direction” when avoiding driving offences. Rather than driving to work, Mr Huhne might find himself following the law armed only with a shovel and a bucket but given the nature of current legislature, his “experience” will probably result in a caution.
The law’s asinine approach to the powerful and the wealthy has, however, been severely shaken and the response is likely to be brutal. Hemming has already been slapped down for “abuse” of parliamentary privilege. Do we really want to see our elected representatives denied the right to speak freely because an ambitious and opportunist MP decides to reveal the identity of a footballer? Twitter is also under attack and here is the crux of the matter.
Users of social media tend to regard Twitter as conversational and no more important than a discussion in a pub, living room or over the garden fence. Bloggers, including this humble author, tend to view their posts as nothing more than opinion rather than truth and welcome the cut and thrust of challenge. There are, of course, complete and utter idiots using social media, especially Facebook, but these are a minority and compared to well paid commentators in old media like Richard Littlejohn, the loathsome Kelvin MacKenzie and our own village idiot Peter Rhodes, twittering internet botherers look positively sane.
The law, however, regards tweets and posts as “publication” and so come under the same flawed jurisdiction that controls the printed press and broadcast media.
Until it wakes up to that crucial difference, the law will forever remain an ass. Please sir, can I have some more?