There’s a big crack in the dam of official censorship today. An attempt by one of Britain’s most formidable law firms to stop media coverage of one of its clients backfired spectacularly when the information it was seeking to suppress was distributed around the internet to millions of users in a matter of hours.

Media and the Houses of Parliament in London

In what will become a case study for how the internet has changed the balance of power in the control of information, solicitors Carter-Ruck and their client Trafigura were forced to drop an attempt to gag media coverage of an 87-word parliamentary question about the alleged dumping of toxic waste off Ivory Coast.

The question was on the public record and available on the internet yet The Guardian was prevented from reporting the question, who asked it, or why it was being gagged.

The information Carter-Ruck was seeking to suppress was published by The Spectator on its website and by Paul Staines, a Westminster blogger who writes under the name Guido Fawkes.

Reports were circulated through social networks, and Trafigura and CarterRuck quickly became trending topics on Twitter. The information was everywhere. The gag order had become a joke.

Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger thanked Twitter users for their support after public anger over the gag order spread online. MPs were also seeking an emergency debate on the matter in the House of Commons.

There’s a comprehensive account, with more links, of what happened here. That article states:

Campaigning environmental journalist at the Guardian, George Monbiot commented that it’s not surprising that most of the British media wouldn’t touch it with a bargepole: “The reason isn’t hard to divine: Trafigura has been throwing legal threats around like confetti.”

He threw in a frightening thought:

“How many Trafiguras have got away with it by frightening critics away with Britain’s libel laws?

“These iniquitous, outdated laws are a threat to democracy, a threat to society, a threat to the environment and public health. They must be repealed.”

There has been some progress with the reform of Australian libel laws in recent years but there are still many things that don’t get a public airing because of the fears - or threats - of legal action.

How many Australian scandals have been kept under wraps because of the libel laws? There are certainly many things that have not been made public because of intervention in Freedom of Information requests.

Anyway, the message to powerful interests from the extraordinary events overnight is simple. If you want to keep secrets, you’ve got to keep them off the internet. And it’s not always easy.

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7 comments

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    • Daddio D says:

      06:02am | 14/10/09

      Excellent article me lad Colgo! Good on ya!  I remember this dumping subject being whispered in the papers and even TV many moons ago. The story was shushed quickly back then, or was not widely published by Bristish media because of the risk of damaging good oul’ Blighty. We all know how Sellafield made the Irish Sea the most radioactive in the world. #If you ever glow across the sea to Ireland…# became Greenpeace’s song at the time.

    • Brian says:

      06:32am | 14/10/09

      Anyone who accurately quotes a Parliamentary proceedings is protected from libel by Parliamentary privilege. I’m suprised that any competent British lawyer would ask a court to suppress a Parliamentary question.

    • iansand says:

      08:04am | 14/10/09

      Brian@7:32 I think that’s the point - they didn’t ask a court.  They used bluff and intimidation.  Then someone does a cost/benefit analysis and decides that discretion is the better part of valour and does not publish.

      You might ask how a large law firm reconciles what is effectively abuse of process with their professional obligations.  I could refer you to several Australian firms, and the clients who instruct them, that throw their weight around in just this way but I would be afraid of the defamation suits.

    • H says:

      12:17pm | 14/10/09

      Very worthy article Paul, good work

    • DWest says:

      12:18pm | 14/10/09

      I hope the Labor Minister for non-Communications Senator Conroy is reading this.

      Labor might not deliver internet democracy but Twitter and other social media does!

    • Old Fart says:

      01:34pm | 14/10/09

      Many moons ago, I used to work for the federal government. And there were a lot of issues that were swept under the rug.

    • Dadio D says:

      10:49am | 20/10/09

      the green glow re-appeared in Dublin’s Seapoint’s swimmers paradise just few day’s ago. Research it.

 

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