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