Social Media Sites Assist Gagged British Newspaper

Social networking sites and blogs helped uncover the source of a gag order against the British newspaper The Guardian in October 2009 after the paper published a story on its Web site claiming it was prohibited from reporting certain remarks made in the British Parliament.

In a cryptic October 12 story, The Guardian reported that, "for the first time in memory," it was prevented from covering remarks made in Parliament. "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 October 12 story said. "The only fact the Guardian can report is that the case involves the London solicitors Carter-Ruck, who specialise [sic] in suing the media for clients..."

According to an October 13 Guardian story, the October 12 notice "had been published online for just a matter of minutes before internet [sic] users began tearing apart the gag."

Posts on blogs and the social networking site Twitter led many Web users to speculate that Trafigura, a multinational energy company, was behind the attempt to prevent The Guardian from publishing the story. In the October 13 Guardian story, published after the gag order was partially lifted, the paperconfirmed that Trafigura was the source of the "super-injunction," a British legal remedy that prevents news organizations from revealing the identities of parties involved in legal disputes or from reporting that restrictions have been imposed.

According to an October 19 New York Times story, a British judge issued the super-injunction on September 11 at the behest of Trafigura's lawyers from the law firm Carter-Ruck in order to prevent The Guardian from publishing any information regarding a 2006 toxic waste-dumping incident in the Ivory Coast.

According to The Times, Trafigura had paid a local operator to dispose of waste from the treatment of low-quality gasoline. The operator dumped about 400 tons of a mixture of petrochemical waste and caustic soda into open landfills. In the following weeks, 85,000 people sought medical attention and eight people died from exposure to the waste.

The Times reported that in 2007, Trafigura paid the Ivory Coast government about $225 million related to the dumping without admitting liability, and later settled a class-action lawsuit in Britain by agreeing to pay $1,500 each to 30,000 different Ivory Coast residents while asserting "that it did not foresee, and could not have foreseen, the reprehensible acts" of its contractor.

When a Guardian reporter obtained a Trafigura-sponsored scientific analysis of the dumped materials, the company asked a British judge to order a super-injunction to prohibit its publication, saying it was a confidential communication with lawyers for the company. The judge agreed, the October 18 Times story reported.

Shortly after the October 12 Guardian story was published, human rights activist and author Richard Wilson found out about the gag order from a message posted on Twitter, the October 13 Guardian story said. "I knew Trafigura were incredibly litigious and I knew [Cater-Ruck was] defending them," Wilson said. "I had a hunch, so I went to the website [sic] of the parliamentary order papers where they publish all the questions, searched for Trafigura and a question from [MP Paul] Farrelly popped up and I tweeted it straight away. It took several tweets and then I pasted in the link."

The Guardian reported that Wilson signed on to his Twitter account at 9:13 p.m., posted the link to The Guardian report about the gag and wrote: "Any guesses what this is about? My money is on, ahem, #TRAFIGURA!" By 9:30 p.m. he had published all of Farrelly's questions about Trafigura. The October 12 Guardian story had been published at 8:31 p.m.

From that point on, the word "Trafigura" rapidly became a top search topic on Twitter, and numerous other bloggers and Internet users posted about the scandal, according to October 13 articles in The Guardian and The Telegraph.

"One day - if it's not happening already - they will teach Trafigura in business schools," Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger wrote in an October 14 column describing the traditional public relations methods used by Trafigura to stifle bad publicity. "The textbook stuff - elaborate carrot, expensive stick - had been blown away by a newspaper together with the mass collaboration of total strangers on the web. Trafigura thought it was buying silence. A combination of old media - The Guardian - and new - Twitter - turned attempted obscurity into mass notoriety."

Faced with the ongoing Web leaks about the story, Carter-Ruck e-mailed The Guardian the next day, agreeing to allow reports of the parliamentary business, and on October 16 Trafigura agreed to allow The Guardian to report on the scientific study that led to the super-injunction, an October 17 Guardian story reported .

An October 14 story in the London Press Gazette reported that several MPs condemned the super-injunction imposed against The Guardian. "It seems to me that a fundamental principle of this House is now being threatened by the legal proceedings for an injunction," Liberal Democrat MP David Heath said. "As you know, we have enjoyed in this House since 1688 the privilege of being able to speak freely."

In an October 13 Time story, Stephen Shotnes, a London-based media law specialist, was reluctant to give Twitter too much credit for breaking the Trafigura story. "It's been enshrined in our law for 300 years that there's freedom of reporting of parliamentary proceedings. I would like to think that what would have happened is that theGuardianwould have trotted off to court today and the injunction would have been lifted anyway," Shotnes said. "The likely impact of Twitter was to speed up that process."

- Ruth DeFoster
Silha Research Assistant

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This page contains a single entry by cla published on January 5, 2010 11:03 AM.

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