Comparisons of Hulk Hogan and Terry Bollea’s genitalia, lies about the number of women Bollea/Hogan has slept with and sex tapes potentially featuring 5 year old children were some of the infinitely low points of the embarrassing Hulk Hogan/Gawker Media lawsuit which is thankfully over.
So what happened?
In brief, Hulk Hogan (real name Terry Bollea) had slept with Heather Clem, wife of his best friend Todd Clem AKA Bubba the Love Sponge while it was recorded on a ‘hidden camera’ in 2006. The tape was leaked to Gawker in 2012 and allegations quickly began flying about whether Hogan knew about the filming and was attempting to gain publicity or whether he was an innocent victim. Hogan immediately sought to prevent Gawker from releasing the whole tape with Gawker ignoring multiple Cease and Desist orders. In 2015 Gawker released more of the video which included Hogan using racist slurs leading to him being fired by WWE and removed from the WWE Hall of Fame.
The trial wrapped up yesterday with Hogan winning $55 million in lost earnings and $60 million for emotional distress. The jury will also decide whether to award punitive damages – more money to Hogan in order to dissuade Gawker from doing the same to another celebrity. The turning point seemed to be a historical quote from former Gawker editor-in-chief Albert J. Daulerio where he had sarcastically said that the only time that a sex tape wouldn’t be of public interest was if it featured a 4 year old or younger child. While his original statement was presumably meant as an offhand quip about the nature of consumer interest in gossip, it was an idiotic statement that came back to bite him on Wednesday.
Here’s where you come in because on the surface it seems that this was another celebrity vs the media case but it actually runs deeper than that.
The interesting part
What the case represented was freedom of speech versus a person’s right to privacy. However there’s also the small matter of ‘revenge porn’ now being illegal so releasing sexually explicit material without a person’s consent is a criminal offence and that complicated the matter significantly. The revenge porn laws haven’t been tested either in the US or the UK and aren’t clearly defined so this case helped to create precedence.
Gawker claimed that Hogan had already given up his privacy by boasting publicly about sexual exploits while Hogan countered that those exploits were made “in character” and weren’t representative of Terry Bollea, whereas the sex video was a breach of Terry Bollea’s privacy.
Theoretically this creates a distinction between a person’s performance persona and their private life, so for example a nude model, stripper, sex worker or burlesque performer could claim that anything said or done in their work identity are different from materials shot while they are ‘off the clock’.
More than that it was a case that would help define whether a sex tape or naked pictures were acceptable to publish if there was a legitimate public interest. So what hung in the balance essentially was whether the media could publish your intimate photos provided they could prove that enough people wanted to see them.
While that has now established an authority in US law, it could also be used as argument in UK law.
How else does it apply?
Gawker Media will appeal the decision of course, but if they aren’t successful then Gawker.com, Deadspin, Lifehacker, Gizmodo, Kotaku, Jalopnik, and Jezebel will have rocky futures. Gawker moved away from celebrity gossip in November to focus more on politics and closed its more controversial sites but all remaining sites are likely to be subject to staffing cuts with some possibly closing or being sold off to raise money. For the time being though the sites are likely to shy away from controversy until the dust settles.
Of those sites above, Jezebel may be hit hardest.
Jezebel is a feminist site that is no stranger to controversy itself with some of its own readers finding that there is a lack of equality (especially in race) and rather a bias in some of its articles. Fact checking often seems to not be on the agenda either as statistics are often manipulated or important facts simply left out of stories to sensationalise. However when a site is built around the notion of a person’s body being private and how others don’t have the right to exploit it, the Hogan case has exposed the hypocrisy of that mission statement to a larger audience who may have missed other examples like their body shaming of Lena Durham or publishing explicit images of rape. Also it doesn’t help that today Jezebel is covering Madonna bringing a 17 year old girl on stage then pulling her top down in a positive light, something their own readers are pointing out isn’t acceptable.
The November reshuffle killed off all of Gawker Media’s controversial sites apart from Jezebel which is obviously still getting a lot of negative attention which Gawker could do without.
While magazines and newspapers have guidelines they need to adhere to, the online press has always been a bit more of a free for all so this decision is likely to lead to more caution from sites like TMZ and other news/gossip sites so a lot more websites could be changing their policies in the very near future and becoming watered down.
Hogan has received a huge amount of publicity this last week and is definitely back in the limelight. The memory of the racial comments have been replaced with a general feeling that Hogan has won a big victory for privacy against the ‘evil’ media, positive publicity that Hulk desperately needed. Will he be at Wrestlemania? It’s possible but it’s probably far too early for WWE to invest in him again, especially as there’s the small issue of 3 other sex videos and a stack of materials that the FBI have in relation to Hogan that CNN and other news outlets are requesting permission to access which Hulk’s lawyers are trying to prevent.
Providing there’s nothing in those files that would tarnish Hogan’s image further and he can prevent himself from doing something stupid then a Hogan return could be possible down the line.
Hogan has set a huge legal precedent, restored his bank account to its pre-divorce levels and potentially paved the way for a future return to wrestling. Not bad for a week’s work.