The future of Gawker Media hangs firmly in the balance this week, rocked first by its defeat at the hands of Hulk Hogan in the courts, secondly by the scale and target of the damages judgement and lastly by the news that Peter Thiel bankrolled Hogan’s court case.
The significance of the latter item can’t be over stated. Thiel was co-founder of PayPal, an early Facebook investor and currently fronts several financial funds. Thiel appears to have been using his considerable wealth to bankroll legal action against Gawker prior to the Hogan case.
The reason for Thiel’s pursuit of Gawker relates to a 2007 article that ‘outed’ him as gay. In fact in the article ‘Peter Thiel is totally gay, people’ author Owen Thomas (also gay apparently) appears to be publicising Thiel’s sexual preferences for political and personal advantage, rather than as an attempt to cause affront or report something that was in the public interest to know. Clearly an article that neither needed to be written nor published.
Given that it was, Thiel’s response has been to set out in search of revenge, although he is framing it as an attempt to deter similar articles from appearing. The end result will almost certainly be the death of Gawker, deprived of investment funds and on the end of a stream of well funded litigation that seeks to drive Gawker’s legal costs through the roof.
It’s hard not to take Thiel’s side here. Gawker played fast and loose with its position, not just in Thiel’s case or Hogan’s, but presumably in others too, playing the schoolyard bully in its search for clicks. I imagine that it put far too much store by the concept of free speech and not enough on public interest and as a result found it had woken a far bigger and more dangerous enemy than it was expecting.
If Thiel were to litigate Gawker out of existence it wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing in itself, however the precedent it sets is dangerous. Legitimate investigation of powerful figures would die away as the media seeks to avoid confrontation with individuals or organisations with funding necessary to bring them to their knees.
A tough one to call, however it seems to me that the media needs to be protected from this kind of vindictive attack in the future. As a matter of balance, individuals should also be protected from this kind of intrusive reporting at the same time.
An individual should not have to be a billionaire to be able to defend their right to a private life.