by Daphne Liddle
AN ATTEMPT by a giant oil trading company to gag the Guardian newspaper reporting allegations of dumping toxic waste in African waters — and even to gag the reporting of parliamentary discussion about the gag — fell apart last week after internet users quickly ferreted out the basic information and posted it everywhere, using Twitter.
For some years now big companies and some wealthy individuals have been issuing “super injunctions” to ban unfavourable stories about them appearing in the press. Many of them use the law firm Carter Ruck, which specialises in libel injunctions.
These super injunctions forbid newspapers not only from printing the story but from reporting that there is an injunction preventing them, who has called for it and the name of the judge granting it. It means that there could be many scandals regarding the behaviour of giant capitalist companies and the general public is kept totally in the dark; journalists may uncover the scandals but they are barred from reporting them.
But in the case of Trafigura, the oil-trading company that tried to gag the Guardian, Carter Ruck went too far by insisting that the gag applied also to reporting questions about the matter being asked in Parliament by Labour MP Paul Farrelly about the matter.
The paper was banned from saying that such a question was being asked, the name of the MP asking it, who the question was addressed to and what the answer was.
On Tuesday the Guardian simply gave the information on its front page that a question was being asked in Parliament but they were barred by a legal injunction from saying what it was, who was asking it and so on.
It did not take long for readers to consult the parliamentary order paper for that day and start to unpick all the details that Trafigura and Carter Ruck had tried to keep suppressed.
Soon Twitter was buzzing with the story and Carter Ruck abandoned their efforts to sustain the gag.
The internet users quickly reported that the gag related to a question by the Labour MP Paul Farrelly concerning the reporting of an incident in which toxic waste was dumped in the Ivory Coast.
Farrelly wanted to know which measures ministers had taken to protect whistleblowers and press freedom following an injunction obtained by the oil company Trafigura and its firm of solicitors, Carter Ruck, against the publication of a report into the matter.
The attempt by Carter Ruck to gag the reporting of parliamentary proceedings brought howls of indignation from MPs of all the major parties, with references to the 1668 Bill of Rights and John Wilkes and liberty.
Big business had overstepped the mark. The capitalist ruling class rules over Parliament but companies must not destroy the illusion that Parliament has supreme power in the state; it must not make MPs look like idiots.
But civil liberties champion John Wilkes would have laughed to learn that it was members of the general public, using the weapon of the internet, who broke the gag, rather than Parliament itself.
MPs from all three major parties condemned the firm’s attempt to prevent the reporting of parliamentary proceedings.
Farrelly told John Bercow, the Speaker: “Yesterday, I understand, Carter-Ruck quite astonishingly warned of legal action if the Guardian reported my question. In view of the seriousness of this, will you accept representations from me over this matter and consider whether Carter-Ruck’s behaviour constitutes a potential contempt of Parliament?”
This gag collapsed when the general public was alerted to its existence. But there are hundreds of other super injunctions in place covering up we know not what.
The journalists who are gagged have little opportunity to challenge them in law because the legal costs are astronomic.
Now that MPs are alert and angry about the issue we must urge them to change the law so that no one is prevented from publishing the truth.
The whole area of libel law needs to be challenged. At present it acts entirely on behalf of the very rich because only they can afford to use it. Many journalists back down from printing stories they know to be true because they know a legal case can bankrupt them regardless of who is right or wrong. Wealthy individuals and companies have only to threaten a libel case to silence critics. And judges are all too hasty to agree to instant injunctions, at any time of day or night, when lawyers like Carter Ruck ring them.