UK: William Hague – An Understandable Overreaction?

Last Updated: 13 September 2010
Article by Duncan Lamont

The Foreign Secretary, William Hague, has just angrily denied rumours that he is gay. The internet is full of allegations that politicians and celebrities are gay, bisexual, cheating on their partners, drug addicts or simply drinking a different fizzy drink from the one that they are paid to endorse. Although some might think "no smoke without fire", the majority of the small group of people who bother to read such things on blogs and obscure websites would not take such rumours as gospel but at best put them down in the "well, maybe" category of gossip.

So what prompted the minister's bombshell public statement (which meant that the rumours could be reported safely by the media without any libel or privacy risks) and did he – legally anyway – have any alternatives?

Rumours about William Hague (and countless other politicians) have been swilling around for years – decades even. No broadcaster or newspaper thought them important enough (or likely to be true) to publish them. But after a photograph with Mr Hague, casually dressed in a basketball cap, shades and jeans walking with his handsome young aide was published, the loudness of the whispers started increasing last year and this and the publication last week of the photograph in some national newspapers ,justified by an issue about how many political aides a politician should have (without any allegations of homosexuality), brought the issue to a head, it seems, in Mr Hague's camp as the bloggerspere was full (or at least a tiny bit of it was) of allegations about Mr Hague and Christopher Myers, his special adviser, being lovers as they had apparently on occasion shared a hotel room before the last election.

For people in Mr Hague's position there are several legal and reputational options to consider:-

  • Do nothing as only a very small number of people would have read the allegations, unpleasant though they might be, and fewer still would have believed them. Nothing had yet to appear in the national press that could be considered legally to be defamatory or a breach of their privacy (justifying him or Mr Myers bringing a claim for damages).
  • Embark on a subtle PR initiative emphasising the strength of his 13 year marriage with wife, Ffion, possibly even breaking the (very private) news that they had just suffered a miscarriage, but not refer to the claims and so deny them national publicity.
  • Through lawyers, approach (if their identities are known and if not try to find out-it can be done) the authors and/or publishers of the damaging allegations with a tough "cease and desist" letter (on the basis that an expensive libel or privacy legal action was disproportionate or Pyrrhic) and/or contact the internet service providers (ISPs) to get them to pull down the offending material which will have been likely to have breached terms and conditions which exist to stop the abuse of internet freedom by the making of such wild and unsubstantiated claims and which are put in place to protect the publisher/service provider of chatrooms, sites and other internet services from claims of breach of copyright, breach of obscenity laws,
  • contempt of court by way of comments on ongoing criminal cases and so on as well as from liability for what they (unknowingly) allowed to be published to a worldwide audience.
  • Seek a "super injunction" through the courts to ban intrusion into his private life. This would also have been an option open to Mr Myers too whose privacy was being intruded with even less justification (as he is not a public figure). Although it could be argued that Mr Hague was a public figure whose private life was in the public domain, an interim injunction could be obtained against the blogger (or even "persons unknown") and then served on Fleet Street. The downside is editors would be likely to assume the story was possibly true as they would know that Mr Hague could sue for libel if anyone worth suing actually published an allegation that he was gay and he wasn't. Also Fleet Street would be given an opportunity to make representations to the Judge (about his high public profile) and there seems to be a public distaste (there certainly is amongst journalists unless they want such injunctions for themselves – for example the BBC seeking to protect the confidentiality of the identity of Stig) for celebrities' protecting their secrets through the courts. If an injunction attempt fails to stick it can be worse than the feared story as John Terry found out earlier this year.
  • Take a deep breath, prepare family and friends, choose a day when there would be likely to be an even bigger story (such as Tony Blair's autobiography) and intrude into your own private life in a way that makes it unambiguously clear to journalists and commentators that the slurs were painful as well as untrue. The legal issue that this creates is that having made a public statement of fact journalists may wish to test the voracity of those claims and, if they find evidence that they were untrue in any way, this would justify what would otherwise be an unacceptable intrusion into this private life on the basis that one would not be doing so for the purposes of revealing private sex secrets but that the public had been misled.

Looking at the above options is becomes clear, perhaps, that Mr Hague found himself in a very difficult position with obvious downsides to any of the options outlined above.

On a more positive side by doing what he has done he has seized control of the story and tried to make it a one off event on a busy news day rather than a painful drip drip drip of wink wink innuendo in the media over the next few weeks (which are busy politically with the Party Conference Season and the return to the House of Commons).

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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