By Richard Smith, who’s been a bit busy
Back in March, and courtesy of Naked Capitalism’s US locale, we arbed away Fred Goodwin’s superinjunction, which banned UK reporting of his affair with a junior director at RBS. After more challenges by the UK newspapers, the superinjunction has now been amended: it’s OK to identify Fred Goodwin as the failed banker with the wandering body part; but still not OK to identify his partner, who is referred to in the official documents by the code letters “VBN”.
Via the Daily Telegraph, it appears that the judge suddenly saw the words of Fred’s original application for an injunction in a new light:
I am a private man and I have never discussed my personal life or relationships in public … I believe that publication of the confidential information would lead to considerable intrusive and disturbing speculation as to my private life and relationships, including on the internet.
…If the information were disclosed publicly, this would inevitably also reach friends, colleagues and other business contacts, not just in the United Kingdom but worldwide…
This would have a very substantial impact on the way in which friends, colleagues and business contacts relate to me and therefore a serious negative impact on my personal life and career.
The judge turned this neatly on its head:
I infer from this that Sir Fred Goodwin is content that the court proceed on the basis that he did have a relationship with VBN …that he had not told any of his friends or colleagues at work about it and that his friends and colleagues would view the relationship with serious disapproval.
Well, maybe. My understanding, for what that’s worth, is that at the time, plenty of people at RBS were well aware of the affair, an awareness that, naturally, intensified the existing mutual contempt between employees and top management. So I don’t set much store by this, reported in The Guardian:
Formally, RBS seems to have been unaware of the relationship until February 2011, more than two years after Goodwin left the bank, and just days before The Sun newspaper first contacted him regarding the allegation. Evidence from the woman stated that an internal investigation had been conducted by RBS, after which she had “not been criticised or disciplined” and it had “not been suggested by anyone at RBS that she was in a position of conflict or in breach of the RBS code [of conduct]”.
It doesn’t sound as if the new board of RBS will be reconnecting with its rather bruised employees any time soon, if that’s the line they are taking.
Most of the hubbub surrounding superinjunctions is to do with the sudden demise of lucrative business models: the UK libel tourism business undone by US legislation that makes UK judgments against US writers unenforceable; its mirror image, the UK tabloid press’s sex gossip franchise, under threat from Twitter, where you can read (and indeed write) all the sleaze you want, for no extra charge. The monstrous intrusions by the UK press into people’s private lives, via various phone tapping and entrapment schemes, haven’t done much to promote the reputation of the press, either.
By contrast, getting the Fred story out there does feel like a small but genuine victory for free speech, in which “Naked Capitalism” has played a small part. Via The Guardian:
Sir Fred had a “reputation as an exceptionally forceful businessman”, said the judge. He was “chief executive of one of the largest publicly quoted companies in the United Kingdom, doing business on a global scale” which made him “a public figure” whose private life was more likely to be of interest to the public.
This public interest, it was said, distinguished Goodwin, under whose stewardship RBS had to be bailed out with £45 billion of taxpayers’ money, from “sportsmen or celebrities” – such as footballer Ryan Giggs – who do not normally carry out “official functions” unless their indiscretions were to impact upon, for example, their football team.
Lord Stoneham, the peer who named Fred in the House of Lords, gets the context of all this exactly right:
Every taxpayer has the right to know all the relevant facts leading up to the collapse of RBS, including failures of corporate governance. Each individual failure of corporate governance might not have been enough to bring down the bank on its own, but every single emergency brake had to fail for RBS to crash so disastrously off the Forth Bridge.
The judge will soon issue instructions to the press on how they may discuss the associated corporate governance issues, while tapdancing with enough dexterity to leave VBN unidentifiable. I’ll be doing my best to comply, and once I have the choreography off pat, I hope to have more to say. For the moment, consider the curious moral calculus revealed by these words of VBN’s, reported by the judge:
She added that one member of her family in particular would suffer “humiliation” if details were known more widely.
One member, huh? So, who’s that, then? Her (former?) husband, or her offspring? Which one’s the human shield? And which one simply doesn’t count? Sadly, both of them must already know their assigned roles in this unpleasant game. But I hope we never find out.