We've written a lot about two efforts to suppress certain kinds of content online through legal regimes: revenge porn
and the right to be forgotten
. In both cases (especially revenge porn), it's quite reasonable to be sympathetic to the person whose embarrassing information is just out there for anyone to see. But we're always concerned at the possibility that these new regulations or legal regimes could
be misused to simply suppress information that people don't like, without any legitimate basis. We've seen a number of cases recently where we wonder about how newsworthy items could
meet the definitions required to be silenced under both of these legal regimes. Whether or not anyone is
actually seeking to suppress that information now, it still should lead to some concerns about cases where it could happen.
Enter UK Prime Minister David Cameron and his apparent, rumored-by-a-single source, naked late night rendezvous with the head of a dead pig.
As you may have heard, last week some details from a new book by Michael Ashcroft and Isabel Oakeshott about Cameron came out -- and the details that got everyone talking involved the possibility of this rather, um, odd encounter with a pig
. It was described this way:
The biography also makes claims about the prime minister’s time at university, saying an MP had seen photographic evidence that Cameron put a “private part of his anatomy” into a dead pig’s head as part of a dining club initiation ritual.
This has resulted in all sorts of chatter, speculation, laughter and an outright denial
from Cameron. Plenty of people made the slightly eerie connection to the (excellent) television series Black Mirror
, whose very first (and probably most well-known) episode involves the UK Prime Minister being forced to fuck a pig on live TV
. Of course, that was to save a member of the royal family who had been kidnapped, rather than some sort of weird initiation ceremony.
While David Cameron has claimed he's "too busy"
to sue Lord Ashcroft over the book, there are also reports that he was quite busy prior to the book's release trying to "sabotage the book"
and somehow block it.
Which leads to the question of whether or not he'd even have the ability to block such content. As we've discussed in the past, the UK has this thing known as a super injunction
that has regularly been used to block any reporting on issues that might embarrass the rich and famous. Given just how frequently it's been used, it's almost surprising that it wasn't
used in this case.
However, what about these more recent concepts of anti-revenge porn laws and the right to be forgotten? On the revenge porn angle, there is alleged to be a photograph of the "pig" ritual. In Lord Aschcroft's book, it's described this way
. After noting that "a distinguished Oxford contemporary" told them of this event a few times, despite the two co-authors assuming it was a joke, eventually the guy gave more details, including information about who supposedly had the photographic evidence:
Some months later, he repeated it a third time, providing a little more detail. The pig’s head, he claimed, had been resting on the lap of a Piers Gaveston society member while Cameron performed the act.
The MP also gave us the dimensions of the alleged photograph, and provided the name of the individual who he claims has it in his keeping.
The owner, however, has failed to respond to our approaches. Perhaps it is a case of mistaken identity. Yet it is an elaborate story for an otherwise credible figure to invent.
For what it's worth, it is not difficult to find sites of questionable credibility claiming to possibly have the photograph in question
. Under the legal definition in some "revenge porn" laws, it's quite possible that anyone passing around this photo online could be breaking such a law. As we noted with pictures of Lenny Kravitz's wardrobe malfunction
, some of it is up for debate, but there's a reasonable case to be made that such a photo could be considered "revenge porn."
Obviously, this is happening in the UK, rather than the US, but just take a look at California's revenge porn law
Any person who intentionally distributes the image of the
intimate body part or parts of another identifiable person, or an
image of the person depicted engaged in an act of sexual intercourse,
sodomy, oral copulation, sexual penetration, or an image of
masturbation by the person depicted or in which the person depicted
participates, under circumstances in which the persons agree or
understand that the image shall remain private, the person
distributing the image knows or should know that distribution of the
image will cause serious emotional distress, and the person depicted
suffers that distress.
You could see how the person who has the original photograph might very well be guilty of that. And while some may (reasonably) argue that revealing or passing around such a photo is distasteful, should it really be against the law? It certainly appears to be a newsworthy topic according to many -- so should it be illegal?
This is, again, why we're so concerned about revenge porn laws. We readily admit that revenge porn (even if it involves the Prime Minister of the UK and a pig) is distasteful to engage in, but it still seems weird that passing on relevant evidence of something so newsworthy might, itself, be considered a crime.
And then there's the "right to be forgotten." In the original ruling
at the EU's Court of Justice, it focused on saying that search engines should be forced to delete links to information that is considered "inadequate, irrelevant or excessive in relation to the purposes of the processing." One could, perhaps, make the argument that details of the Prime Minister of the UK engaged in a sexual act/hazing ritual with the severed head of a pig might possibly meet all those requirements. The ruling does include an exception for "the role played by the data subject in public life" in which case it might be decided "that the interference with his fundamental rights is justified by the preponderant interest of the general public in having, on account of inclusion in the list of results, access to the information in question." So, perhaps one would argue that, given Cameron's public role, the interest in the public knowing about his pig romanticizing university hazing activities would eliminate the RTBF in this case. Or at least one would hope so.
But the problem in both these cases is that it's not out of the question that courts might find one or either of the above attacks on free speech to apply here. And you can reasonably argue that what David Cameron did or did not do with a pig back at Oxford as a student isn't really all that important, and the somewhat giddy fascination by many in the press and the public is a depressing sign of our discourse these days -- but it still worries me when we start passing laws that suggest that such things might not even be allowed to be discussed publicly at all. Cameron seems to have, wisely, decided that his best course of action is to just deny the story and hope it blows over (as it likely will). However, we've spent years chronicling people who show no such restraint when embarrassing information comes out about themselves -- and it's important to watch carefully how these new legal regimes might be abused to silence legitimate reporting and free expression.