Has the celebrity couple sacrificed its reputation to protect its privacy?
In a disappointing decision for the UK’s media, and to the apparent relief of much of the legal community, the Supreme Court yesterday opted (pdf) to keep in place an interim injunction protecting the names of a celebrity couple PJS and YMA, one of whom was allegedly involved in an olive oil-drenched ménage à trois in a plastic paddling pool.
Engaged in close combat with the judiciary and much of the legal profession since the Court of Appeal overruled the High Court in favour of the imposition of the injunction in late January, Fleet Street’s finest are clearly in no mood to let the matter rest. The story looks set to run until the allegations go to full trial, and will probably linger for a considerable period of time thereafter, whichever way the court decides.
Irrespective of the rights and wrongs of the various legal interpretations taken so far, if there’s one thing that can be said with any degree of certainty it is surely that the reputational dimension of the case has been exploited mercilessly by those seeking to make the allegation public, and apparently overlooked or ignored by the couple in their sights.
At least, this is an easy and obvious conclusion to make. After all, thanks to foreign media coverage, interventions by high profile bloggers, an orgy of speculation on Twitter and a mainstream media intent on pushing both the spirit and the letter of the law to their limits (eg. Daily Mail redacted article below), just about everyone knows the names of those involved.
Perhaps it’s not quite that straight-forward.
It is worth remembering the injunction held fast, at least for a few weeks before the names of those involved were published in the US.
And then geo-blocking ensured (and continues to ensure) that the US article that sparked the media furore was seen by relatively few people – other than those using VPNs – in England & Wales, where the injunction applied.
Google was also ordered to remove numerous links to articles and posts (here’s one list) mentioning the story, thereby limiting further access, at least for those using Google.co.uk.
While these defences proved by no means water-tight, over 60% of people participating in an April 2016 YouGov study stated they did not know the identity of the couple being talked about – a figure that seems unlikely to have changed much since, if online search interest for the term ‘PJS injunction’ is anything to go by.
An important question from a reputational – and a legal – perspective is whether the figure would have been any higher had the media named the couple in January, when the injunction was first applied for.
It is hard to know.
Certainly the story has now dragged out over several months and is likely to have resulted in considerable embarrassment, especially should it come to the attention of the couple’s children. But has it ended up causing significantly greater reputational damage to a pair which has publicly confirmed it conducts an open relationship, and whose ostentatiously flamboyant public life does little to suggest it has much to hide? Will it adversely affect the careers, earnings or image rights of the two?
There again, reputational damage may not be the primary concern of PJS and co, at least not now. Rather, it may well be about having justice in court, and being seen to have justice in court, irrespective of the brouhaha and the costs and whatever comes afterwards.
My guess is that the PR/communications dimension was indeed initially overlooked by PJS and co. A broader and more proactive approach involving lawyers, PR advisers and online reputation experts would almost certainly have been advisable from the start.
Nonetheless, against the odds, the couple has persuaded the Supreme Court of its case, legally reinforced the privacy rights of celebrities and other individuals, limited some of the reputational downside that inevitably cones with litigation, and successfully jabbed Fleet Street in the eye, not once but several times.
UPDATE: As of November 4, 2016, the celebrity couple and News Group Newspapers agreed an out-of-court settlement on the basis of the latter’s breach of confidence and misuse of private information.
Here’s a potted timeline of events to date:
Scène de Ménage
A Play in Several Parts
‘PJS’ – husband of YMA
‘YMA’ – celebrity entertainer and husband of PJS
‘AB’ – PJS’ lover, and lover (and subsequently) husband of CD
‘CD’ – AB’s husband former partner ‘AB’ and AB’s then partner of ‘CD’
Part I – Exposition
- 2007/8: PJS meets AB
- 2009: PJS and AB start a sexual relationship
- 2011: PJS messages AB to ask whether CD was ‘up for a three-way’
Part II – Conflict
- Jan 2016: AB and CD approach Sun on Sunday newspaper with story about PJS. PJS declines to comment on the record when approached by the newspaper
- Jan 15: Lawyers for PJS apply to the High Court for an interim injunction in England and Wales. The judge rejects the injunction on the grounds that the newspaper is entitled to ‘correct the public image’ presented by PJS, issuing a seven day interim injunction for PJS to appeal
- Jan 21: Lawyers for PJS lodge appeal for injunction in England and Wales
- Jan 22: Court of Appeal rules in favour of PJS on privacy grounds, publishes ruling with names redacted
Part III – Rising Action
- April 6: US newspaper National Enquirer names protagonists
- April 10: Scotland on Sunday names protagonists in print-only story
- April 11: top Westminster political blogger names celebrity couple
- April 11: Reports circulate that PJS is to be named in the House of Commons
- April 11: House of Commons speaker John Bercow bans MPs from naming couple
- April 12: Google starts removing links to stories mentioning the story
- April 12: PJS’ lawyers threaten UK blogger with Contempt of Court
- April 14: UK newspaper names political blog that named celebrity couple
- April 15: UK media win right to report on Court of Appeal injunction hearing
- April 18: Court of Appeal lifts injunction, subject to appeal to Supreme Court
- April 19: PJS applies for permission to appeal to UK Supreme Court
- May 19: Supreme Court upholds PJS’ right to privacy
Part IV – Climax
- Not achieved
Part V – Denouement