In April 2014, the media critic Michael Wolff published a column in British GQ about the then-ongoing phone hacking trial against several journalists and editors employed by Rupert Murdoch’s shuttered tabloid News of the World. Titled “The court without the king,” the critical article is now at the center of a complaint lodged by England’s attorney general, whose office believes GQ should be held in “contempt of court” for implying, with Wolff’s column, that Murdoch was somehow culpable for the hacking charges. As reported by the Guardian, the magazine’s publisher Condé Nast is rightfully fighting this accusation. At the same time, and without any public notice, Condé appears to have taken several highly unusual steps to prevent anyone from reading what Wolff wrote.
Wolff’s piece occupies six pages, 124 though 129, of the original April 2014 issue of British GQ, the cover of which reads: HACKING EXCLUSIVE! MICHAEL WOLFF AT THE TRIAL OF THE CENTURY. But if you download a digital copy of the magazine today—in our case, from the third-party platform Zinio—you will not find any trace of Wolff’s words. The cover’s teaser text, for example, now refers to an article about Monty Python:
The article is no longer listed in the issue’s table of contents:
And, according to Zinio’s own software, pages 124-127 simply do not exist (while 128-129 have been entirely replaced with ads):
The only online evidence of the article’s existence is a page on the magazine’s website listing the April 2014 issue’s table of contents. According to the Internet Archive, GQ never created an online version of Wolff’s column.
Why would Condé go through all the effort of ensuring Wolff’s article could not be read not only by its English readers without access to a print copy, but by readers in other countries as well? Nothing in the actual piece, whose text was obtained by Gawker via an eBay auction of the original print edition, would strike the ordinary American reader as illegal, and there’s no indication that Wolff or GQ published anything inaccurate. Here, for example, is one of the sections the attorney general of England appears to focus on:
Just to utter the word “Murdoch” could, from the prosecution’s perspective, have tarred the defendants. Indeed, so powerful is the word that it may arguably be prejudicial in and of itself, or perhaps a distraction from the people actually on trial. The more guilt that might be ascribed to him, the less for the defendants. That might logically have been a defence ploy: to make the defendants victims of the far-off monster. On the other hand, arguably, the more you say the name Murdoch the more you ascribe a negative aura to all. Guilt by association.
Also, not incidentally, Murdoch is paying for much of this grand defence, by some estimates the most costly in British legal history. From the defence’s point of view, there’s only so much you’d want to bite the hand that feeds. And perhaps he is more useful in his absence. Without Murdoch as the anchor, it is natural to wonder just exactly why we are here.
Condé did not acknowledge our requests for comment, but the likely reason for the article’s erasure, it seems, is England’s notoriously strict laws governing speech. In the United Kingdom, judges can compel news outlets and other publications to refrain from publishing information or works that could somehow interfere with “the course of justice.” They can also attempt to punish outlets after the fact, as is the case here. According to the attorney general’s office, the above passage builds the argument that Murdoch “was, or probably was, implicated in voicemail interception and that he should have been prosecuted and in his absence the trial had an air of unreality about it.” Since the hacking trial’s prosecution team deliberately avoided going after Murdoch as part of its legal strategy, the attorney general contends, jurors were in danger of reading Wolff’s article and arriving at the conclusion that the prosecution had formed “a misleading picture” of what had actually happened.
These laws are self-evidently ludicrous, and the fact that a Western government is harassing Wolff and GQ for publishing opinions about a public figure is preposterous. Thankfully such codes are largely unthinkable in the United States, where journalists like Wolff enjoy, and deserve, strong press protections under the the First Amendment. But in this particular instance, the U.K.’s speech laws are acting as a de facto restraint on Wolff’s First Amendment rights, here in the United States. After all, Condé clearly felt the need to prevent the article’s text from reaching American readers—a large, and possibly the largest, share of Wolff’s audience—and, as you can see above, even attempted to create the perception that Wolff’s column was never published in the first place.
In response to a direct inquiry about his column’s disappearance, Wolff sent Gawker a link to a recent USA Today column of his about the upcoming jury trial between Gawker Media and Terry Bollea (a.k.a. Hulk Hogan). In that column, Wolff argues that although “Hogan’s suit will likely be defeated on constitutional grounds,” the prospect of Gawker being financially crippled by an unconstitutional jury award would serve as part of a set of “checks and balances” against irresponsible or “feral” journalism.
Wolff’s premise that the law should be used to slap around unruly journalists strikes us as a bad one, and we wish him and GQ success against the attorney general.