Legal firm Carter-Ruck has lost a secret battle to keep from public scrutiny the actions of its client the multi-national oil traders Trafigura.
In a masterful display of political and media manoeuvring the Guardian led a charge of the blog-brigade against an injunction preventing the newspaper from reporting Parliamentary proceedings relating to the case. In a classic example of the Streisand effect at work, Web 2.0 denizens incensed by the affront to democracy that the injunction represented spread the story far-and-wide, through social-networking sites and blog posts. Parliamentarians picked up on the story and grumblings were heard in the corridors of power. The Liberal Democrats asked the Speaker to call the Justice Secretary and Lord Chancellor, Jack Straw, to the commons to answer MPs’ questions in an emergency debate. Meanwhile the Guardian petitioned the High Court for an immediate hearing to challenge the injunction. In the face of this onslaught, Carter-Ruck caved, allowing the Guardian to publish full details of the controversy.
There is now a petition on the 10 Downing Street website calling for the freedom of the press to report Parliamentary business to be enshrined unequivocally in law. At the time of writing it had attracted over 500 signatures. Documents relating to the case are also available on Wikileaks.
The BBC is reporting on how the Twitterverse toppled the court injunction. While gag orders are effective on mainstream media outlets it seems many blog owners don’t feel bound by the rules. Perhaps this is because individual bloggers don’t consider themselves to be part of the media, or perhaps it’s because there is safety in numbers: surely the high court can’t act against so many disparate individuals and against such weight of public opinion?
There is a legitimate public interest in the details of such cases, and it is regrettable that powerful private interests are able to manipulate the justice system to protect themselves from scrutiny, criticism and the potential consequences of their actions. That’s why press freedom should be protected by legislation rather than having to rely on a scatter-gun public Internet defence. This is especially true of the freedom to report Parliamentary business, without which expenses abuse by MPs went unchecked for years, and Trafigura nearly got away with covering up its despicable behaviour.
I have written to my MP about this issue. Here’s an extract from my letter:
It is particularly worrying that the injunction was served at the behest of commercial litigants in order to hide their activities from appropriate public scrutiny. Such gagging orders are an abuse of legal process and run counter to hard-won democratic principles that date back centuries.
The public has the right to know the activities of its representatives within Parliament. The absolute right of the media to report the proceedings of both Houses, at all times and without restriction, should be enshrined in law.
I urge you to introduce an Early-Day Motion calling for legislation to put beyond doubt, and beyond the influence of the judiciary, the freedom of the press to report on Parliament.
Take action: Sign the petition now and let your MP know what you think too.