Cross posted from Online Journalism Blog, where I’ve been updating all day – find any further updates here.
If the famous media gaggers, the libel law firm Carter-Ruck, scourge of Private Eye, thought they’d scored another famous victory (these guys are big on bragging) suppressing news they hadn’t reckoned with social media.
#trafigura is as I type the #1 trending topic on Twitter (that’s in the whole world). The Spectator has already broken the wall between what the blogs will say and what the print media thinks it can get away with … and many, many more people are now aware of the very story a very rich set of bastards running a polluting company is paying them – presumably – many millions to kill.
In a few hours American bloggers will start picking up on the story enmasse. What’s Carter-Ruck going to do then? As @ElrikMerlin just pointed out to me ‘this is Streisand Effect in action’ – something which I have blogged about before.
When Uzbek billionaire Alisher Usmanov tried the same trick, and created the same effect, it generated this quote from Boris Johnson (one of those inadvertently whacked by Usmanov’s ‘take-down’ action):
We live in a world where internet communication is increasingly vital, and this is a serious erosion of free speech.
This is what Carter-Ruck did:
The Guardian has been prevented from reporting parliamentary proceedings on legal grounds which appear to call into question privileges guaranteeing free speech established under the 1688 Bill of Rights.
Today’s published Commons order papers contain a question to be answered by a minister later this week. The Guardian is prevented from identifying the MP who has asked the question, what the question is, which minister might answer it, or where the question is to be found.
The Guardian is also forbidden from telling its readers why the paper is prevented – for the first time in memory – from reporting parliament. Legal obstacles, which cannot be identified, involve proceedings, which cannot be mentioned, on behalf of a client who must remain secret.
The only fact the Guardian can report is that the case involves the London solicitors Carter-Ruck, who specialise in suing the media for clients, who include individuals or global corporations.
This feels like another significant turning point for social media.
My updates throughout today
Nick Clegg has tweeted ‘Very interested concerned about this #trafigura / Guardian story the @LibDems are planning to take action on this’
Trafigura was deleted from trending topics, despite the fact it was obviously the top-trending topic. One minute it was top, the next it had vanished. Twitter’s trend explanations were also absent from any topics relating to Trafigura.
I don’t blame them, British libel laws are notorious for being swingeing, and Carter-Ruck’s efficacy in the area is well-know.
[#trafigua has now come back up trending topics]
@arusbridger #Guardian editor tweets: hoping to get into court today to challenge ban by #carterruck on reporting parliament. Watch this space
BBC finally reporting #guardiangag , fourteen hours after Guardian published.
Carter-Ruck are on Twitter (nb: could possibly be imposter). The tweets are unreal:
@carterruck is looking for a new slogan. “Defending the indefensible” #carterruckslogan
LibDems have tabled an urgent question.
The huge US liberal website Daily Kos is now onto #trafigura.
We want to put the Streisand Effect to work, and make hashtags #carterruck and especially #trafigura the top trending topics on Twitter. Please include these hashtags in your tweets of the next 24 hours.
First satirical take: Carter-Ruck successfully preserves Trafigura’s online reputation:
“We at Carter-Ruck are proud to be so effective in protecting such deserving clients, and look forward to working just as effectively for the reputations of similarly environmentally well-behaved companies around the globe,” said Carter-Ruck’s new directors of marketing George Monbiot and Julian Assange.
MP, who Guardian is currently prohibited from identifying, said he would ask the Speaker to consider taking action against Carter-Ruck for contempt of parliament.
The media lawyer Geoffrey Robertson QC said Lord Denning ruled in the 1970s that “whatever comments are made in parliament” can be reported in newspapers without fear of contempt.
He said: “Four rebel MPs asked questions giving the identity of ‘Colonel B’, granted anonymity by a judge on grounds of ‘national security’. The DPP threatened the press might be prosecuted for contempt, but most published.”
The right to report parliament was the subject of many struggles in the 18th century, with the MP and journalist John Wilkes fighting every authority – up to the king – over the right to keep the public informed. After Wilkes’s battle, wrote the historian Robert Hargreaves, “it gradually became accepted that the public had a constitutional right to know what their elected representatives were up to”.
Ungag the Guardian twibbon campaign.
Should there be any restrictions placed on the reporting and analysis of what is said (and written) in the Palace of Westminster? I’d argue not, save perhaps for those rare occasions when national security is truly at risk.
Yet this “sensitive” question appears on the Order Paper and the answer will appear in Hansard.
Gagged? This journalist is gagging at the court’s decision.
Carter-Ruck now under attack on Google Maps
journalism.co.uk commentary and background on past Carter-Ruck gagging attempts.
We the undersigned petition the Prime Minister to enshrine in law the absolute right of the media to report the proceedings of The House in full at all times.
Tell your MP to stand up for the media’s right to report on politicians in Westminster: e-mail them in two minutes, now.
Newsnight will report on this case and the prevalence of media laws being used by large companies to restrict information on Tuesday 13 October 2009 at 10.30pm on BBC Two.
BBC media correspondent Nick Higham for BBC website, When is a secret not a secret?:
In the anarchic, anything-goes world of the internet, where freedom of speech is a frequently heard rallying cry, injunctions banning publication of anything are unpopular. This one seems to have acted like a red rag to a bull.
There is no doubt that the events of the past day have been profoundly democratic, entirely in keeping with the Bill of Rights’ sweeping away of kingly powers and its assertion of the primacy of openness among the governors of the people. In a parallel universe, attempts to muzzle parliament might be seen as treasonable – but while we’ll never have libel lawyers hearing the axe being sharpened in the Tower, the end result – a chilling effect on the silencers – is just as welcome, and welcomingly just.
Tweet from @wikileaks : Remember the UK press is STILL GAGGED from saying the toxic dumping report is on WikiLeaks HERE: http://bit.ly/v5rDJ
James Mackintosh for Financial Times, People power 1, Carter-Ruck and Trafigura 0:
Let’s hope Jack Straw, secretary of state for justice, listens: the trend towards ever-wider gagging orders gives big companies and the rich and powerful yet another way to strangle investigative journalism – as if the overly-restrictive libel and confidentiality laws were not bad enough.
Oil-trading company Trafigura knew that waste dumped in Ivory Coast in 2006 was hazardous.
Trafigura had persistently denied that the waste was harmful but internal e-mails show staff knew it was hazardous.
The chemical waste came from a ship called Probo Koala and in August 2006 truckload after truckload of it was illegally fly-tipped at 15 locations around Abidjan, the biggest city in Ivory Coast.
In the weeks that followed the dumping, tens of thousands of people reported a range of similar symptoms, including breathing problems, sickness and diarrhoea.
Mark Pack spots an unfortunate quote being served up on the Carter-Ruck homepage and says I think Carter-Ruck might be changing this quote, don’t you?.
NBC News’ @AnnCurry tweets:
Victims of alledged toxic waste dumping by Trafigura Co. Its legal firm CarterRuck tried to stop this story: http://bit.ly/3jU0vD
Ian Douglas for the Telegraph, Context overcomes the law for Trafigura and the Guardian:
A search in Google News for Trafigura yielded the Guardian’s piece reporting the order, despite the word never being mentioned. So many people had linked to it using the name of the company that there was no need for the Guardian to break the order themselves, as the search engines determine the subject of a page by analysing those that link to it as much as the page itself.
Tweet from @BristleKRS:
Today’s twictionary words: 1: to #CarterRuck up; vb tr, to fail in exponential relationship to invoiced fee
Tory Politico is reporting that The Independent has removed a story, published on September 17, relating to Trafigura’s dumping of toxic waste in the Ivory Coast. The story is still available through the google cache of the page.
Here you can see how the gagging of the Guardian was rapidly overwhelmed by mentions of Trafigura on Twitter, via Trendistic.
BBC Newsnight [Video], Dirty tricks and toxic waste in Ivory Coast.
Philippe Naughton for the Times, Twitter-power wins gagging victory over Carter-Ruck and Trafigura:
“Wow,” said one Twitterer among the deluge of comments. “Never heard of Trafigura before today.”
Tweet from Guardian Editor @arusbridger : Now support #Newsnight which is being sued by #Trafigura and #carterRuck over toxic waste expose http://tinyurl.com/pqf4dt
[Via PoliticsHome]: In the Commons this afternoon, Speaker John Bercow was urged to block future legal attempts to prevent the reporting of parliament, or to curtail MPs parliamentary privilege to speak freely.
Labour MP Paul Farrelly, whose question regarding Trafigura was the subject of the gag, asked Mr Bercow to investigate whether the Trafigura’s reprentatives, Carter Ruck, had acted in contempt of parliament.
Other members, including Lib Dem frontbencher David Heath and former shadow home secretary David Davis, also raised concerns.
Mr Bercow told MPs he would reflect on the matter, but insisted that the moves to gag The Guardian, which were dropped this afternoon, “in no way inhibited” parliamentary procedure.
“There is no queston of our own proceedure being in anyway inhibited. If the honorable member wants to pursue this as a matter of principle there is of couse, as he will doubtless know, an established procedure of raising it with me in writing,” he said.
#trafigura has now dropped off the top ten Twitter trending topics.
Marc Ambinder for The Atlantic Online, The Guardian Gets To Speak, But Britain Deserves A Free Press:
In practice, when compared to, well, almost every other country in the history of the world, Britain’s press has flourished. But it has done so without the type of prior right that gives the press in the U.S. its moral force. While the press cannot print anything it wants in either the U.S. or Britain, it is much easier in Britain for an entity to obtain a pre-publication injunction, or for some to win a libel lawsuit, or for parliament to bottle up debate, or for government to prevent journalists from publishing secrets. It is much harder to obtain information from the government. Still, it should be remarked that, believe or not, the Supreme Court of the United States did not formally agree that the government could not prevent the press from revealing “scandalous and defamatory” matter until 1933, in Near v. Minnesota.
It’s not so much that an expressed free press right would have resolved this dispute the right way.We’re still debating the limits of the bill of rights in this country. And in the U.K., the right to report on what someone says in parliament — or on the questions submitted to be answered by a minister of government — is already established in statute. But the existence of a constitutional right would shift the burden away from the interests with relatively less power than the state, the lawyers and the company.
Ian Reeves for Centre for Journalism, The injunction that failed, thanks to Twitter:
The digital revolution is about to lead to a legal one.
LONDON (AP) — Bloggers and Twitter users thwarted a legal attempt Tuesday to stop Britain’s media from reporting the questions posed by a lawmaker in a parliamentary debate, spotlighting the power of new media to influence public policy.
Alan Brookland, My advice to Trafigura – just wait it out:
Before everyone gets too self-congratulatory, does any of this brief flirtation with online interest ever actually change anything? True, right now, lots of people who had probably never even heard of Trifigura will now be reading up on the dumping story, but, come tomorrow or next week, how many will still remember much about it? The bloggers will chalk up a victory and in this case the gagging order was actually lifted, but this is still an on-going case and nothing will have actually changed.
Sites like Twitter are excellent for catching a wave and occasionally rallying a large number of people behind a cause, but it’s yet to become the force for social change that it’s being made out to be. Real issues sadly aren’t resolved in an afternoon and a normally more complicated than 140 characters. If social media is really going to make the impact that it could, then we all need to keep an eye on the issues which we find important and persue them, not just jump on while it’s in the news and let it quietly die. Nag your MP, pester the mainstream media and ask the annoying questions, not just when the issue is in the news, but repeatedly. It’s only by proving that we can stay interested in an issue that change happens, otherwise people will just wait till the dust settles and everything will stay the same.
Tweet from @pauloCanning : BBC #Radio4 news *finally (and briefly) reporting #gagcarterruck Fry gets quoted
Mike Butcher for Techcrunch, There’s nowhere to hide if your name trends on Twitter. Is there, Trafigura?
With the traditional media gagged, the new media had kicked in. That created a story which plenty of trad media outlets and blogs outside the UK could not ignore and started reporting on.
In other words, this kind of censorship is over. And I hope that British Libel law will change as a result. It must now move into the 21st Century and reflect new technology. After all, there is now a new defence. Feel libelled? You can defend your case just as much as the other guy online. Except of course if you are dumb enough not to register @carterruck, for instance.