Twitter Power – the Trafigura Scandal and Gagging The Guardian

A good day to bury bad news again?

The saga of Trafigura, Carter-Ruck, The Guardian, Twitter Power and an indignant government, which broke messily all over the internet yesterday morning – well, that quite neatly eclipsed the latest installment in the MP’s expenses scandal, which had been rumbling on apace for most of Monday, and looked to be building up a good head of steam towards another day of revelations and unseemly bickering in Westminster.

We certainly got the revelations, and plenty of unseemly bickering at Westminster and beyond, just not on the subject of expenses; which slightly annoyed me, considering that I had started Tuesday morning with the aim of writing another ranty blog on MP’s expenses high on my ever-expanding To Do list for the day.

So, instead, I got to feel righteously outraged, via Twitter, at the fact that some sinister law firm representing a corrupt and heartless multinational could even think of slapping a gagging order on The Guardian over their right to publish the details of a parliamentary question, asked yesterday by Paul Farrelly MP, about freedom of the press and whistleblowers in the context of the appalling Trafigura Ivory Coast toxic dumping scandal – but they went further than simply thinking about it, because the gagging order was firmly slapped on, despite the fact that The Guardian (and other British, Dutch and American papers) have already reported relatively extensively on the Trafigura scandal.

The Guardian may have been gagged. But Twitter and the blogosphere (how I hate that word – anyone have any better suggestions?) were not, and word soon spread, helped by Guardian journalists’ well-known love of Twitter, and by the fact that the infamous and influential political blogger Guido Fawkes had also picked up on the story. Much tweeting was coming from the direction of The Guardian’s editor, Alan Rushbridger and, it seemed, much of the rest of Twitter. By lunchtime on Tuesday, both #trafigura and #carter-ruck were trending, something I suspect the latter had not anticipated.

Soon after this, Carter-Ruck capitulated, backing down in the face of the mass online ‘breaking’ of the gagging order, and the possibility of a court case brought by The Guardian. It was all over. Until the next time, that is.

This all seems like it was a clumsy attempt by the notoriously secretive and litigious law firm of Carter-Ruck to stop these reports, but, in attempting to gag The Guardian, they were sailing very close to the wind when it came to legally enshrined ideas of the freedom of the press – namely the 1688 Bill of Rights, which gives journalists absolute privilege in reporting parliament, and which has led many MPs of all parties to call for an investigation into whether this gagging injunction amounts to contempt of Parliament.

The gagging order certainly amounts to contempt for the ideas of freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and the accountability of Parliament (yes, I know the latter is not particularly accountable at the best of times…). We already live in a society where our civil liberties and ancient rights are gradually being eroded under our noses by an autocratic and ‘nanny-state’ government, and we already live in a society where multinational corporations already have far more political power than they have any right to deserve, let alone expect – which is why Trafigura appear to have thought they would get away with bypassing one of the most fundamental laws of this country and riding rough-shod over basic human and civil rights.

This bullying attempt at censorship was not a very bright move on the part of the polluters, though. Trafigua already knew that the press in at least three western countries had already picked up on the scandal – so surely they could see that in trying to suppress the story at this stage of the proceedings they really were shutting the stable door after all the horses had bolted, along with the grooms and all the tack? Because this story was still going to get out in ways they couldn’t stop – and through media they couldn’t police.

That little blue and white birdie won’t be gagged….

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