Running rings round Carter-Ruck

rusbridger statusDid the Guardian game Trafigura and Carter-Ruck? Because if they did – and did it with the assistance of one MP, a clutch of bloggers, and Twitterers of every political conviction – then they did it brilliantly.

Pretty much all of the information that Carter-Ruck sought to smother is now better known than it ever would have been from a normal below-the-fold Guardian front page story. The injunction on mentioning the parliamentary question on the Minton Report has been lifted, and gagging orders have gone from being a  pernicious journalistic niggle to a lead item. It has given the Guardian a compelling unfolding story, attracted virtually universal positive coverage for the paper, and opened the way for a widely-supported campaign against abuses of the legal system.

Jack of Kent says of the initial report of the case in the Guardian, “I thought it a carefully worded article, almost like a crossword clue.” In other words, anyone who had the interest and the inclination could match the information in the parliamentary record with the information provided by the Guardian, and work out which question they weren’t allowed to report on. Plenty figured it out, and by the time I caught up with the story, Richard Wilson (like several other bloggers) had published the question on his own blog.

The question came from Paul Farrelly – who is, I learnt via Aaronovitch Watch, a former Observer employee. The Legal News column in the most recent Private Eye mentions that “one MP hopes to break the conspiracy of silence, under parliamentary privilege, when the Commons reassembles.” If that “one MP” is Farrelly, then he probably figured beforehand (maybe in concert with his former colleagues, and maybe not) that a gag could be just as productive as a publishable answer in exposing Trafigura and Carter-Ruck.

From the time the Guardian published its first non-coverage of the parliamentary question on its website, the paper played the whole thing perfectly. Editor Alan Rusbridger was active on Twitter, along with most other Guardian hacks, following the hashtag activity and encouraging supporters to tweet and retweet on the names and links that made the story.

Was it the Twitter wot won it? It’s impossible to know how the case would have  been decided without a tweet campaign, and perhaps the original injunction would have been overturned on appeal anyway. Still, it seems likely that the presence of #trafigura and #carter-ruck in Twitter’s trending topics would have been taken as evidence that the injunction was both useless and counter-productive. Print media brought the information and supplied the authority to stand it up; social media ensured that the coverage didn’t freeze in legal chill.

Trafigura and Carter-Ruck are the perfect opposition for a cause like this, because they’re easy to pick out as villains and there’s little collateral damage. If similar activity lead to, say, the widespread revelation of Maxine Carr’s new identity or the naming of defendants in a case of child abuse with living victims, I’d think the outcome much less peachy. But the UK legal system is currently being gamed into submission by organisations who don’t just have something to hide, but also want to hide that they’re hiding anything. This time, the Guardian outplayed them.

** EDIT Updated at 23:41, 13 October to clarify status of injunction on Minton Report. **

** Update 19 October 2009 ** The Guardian’s investigations editor, David Leigh, has tweeted a link to this post, describing it as “interesting” – which I’m hoping can be taken to mean “not hideously wrong”.

Text © Sarah Ditum, 2009

6 thoughts on “Running rings round Carter-Ruck

  1. Best overview I’ve read. Thanks Sarah.

    First the ‘Save the Observer’ campaign, now this… The Guardian is getting *really* good at viral marketing.

  2. Great post!

    I must admit whilst reading the Guardian’s piece on the injunction (or not on the injunction as it were) I couldn’t help but think of State of Play (the BBC series, haven’t seen the film version) where the paper uncovers a conspiracy perpetuated by a major oil company and covered up by people in parliament but has an injunction banning them from printing anything. So they just fill the first 6 pages with large print explaining that they couldn’t print their story.

    If you haven’t seen the series you really should. It’s brilliantly written, acted and plotted.

    Mike

  3. A very good post. But is this simply a one-off event, fuelled by people’s desire to see the press operate without restriction, or is it now the textbook battle plan for newspapers to circumvent reporting restrictions?

    I would probably tend towards the former as the Guardian probably has a higher percentage of readers who use Twitter and the like.

  4. Good article, but this was only the first battle in a much bigger war: there are wider issues that still need to be addressed, in particular the increasingly common abuse of the legal system – both specifically in this case and generally in many other cases.

    Firstly we need to bring to an end the abuses of the legal system which can create the ludicrous situation which happened with the Guardian: the UK needs to confirm quite explicitly in law its adherence to the European Convention on Human Rights and the consequential fact that citizens of EU nations have an absolute right to information about and access to reports on the processes of government and their elected representatives’ activities on their behalf, as confirmed by a judgement earlier this year by the European Court of Human Rights in a case filed against the Hungarian Government

    We need to confirm in law that the media have both a right and a duty to the public to report matters in The House without restriction.
    See http://petitions.number10.gov.uk/PressFreedom/ and add your voice.

    Secondly we need to make changes to the law of defamation to prevent habitual litigants abusing the legal system to silence legitimate criticism or the publication of truth Such uses of the law are nothing more than covert censorship.

    There are various classic cases, of which Trafigura’s recent activities are examples, but perhaps the most egregious defamation case currently outstanding is the case against Simon Singh arising from an article he wrote about chiropractic. Such cases are not only wasteful of legal resource, they’re also exceptionally costly and damage still further the declining reputation of the UK’s legal system.

    Gird your loins folks: this is going to be a long battle, and be assured, it’s not one we can afford to lose.

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