Further to my post here yesterday, take a look at this extensive piece of censorship in Britain overturned by 104 words on Twitter. Astonishing! It is by well known Sydney lawyer, Richard Ackland who, once upon a long ago, used to host Media Watch on ABC Television.
A simple Twitter brings down the mighty cone of silence
October 16, 2009
I hope no one missed this week's legal excitement in London. The British oil trading company Trafigura managed to get a ''super-injunction'' to prevent reporting of the findings into its dumping of toxic waste in the Ivory Coast's biggest city, Abidjan.
Thousands were injured by waste containing tonnes of phenols, hydrogen sulphide, corrosive caustic soda and quantities of mercaptans. Trafigura denied it was dangerous, but nonetheless paid £100 million ($175 million) to the Ivory Coast Government to clean up the mess and agreed to compensation of £1000 each for the 30,000 people made ill.
All this was accompanied by actions for libel and injunctions. Last month The Guardian published claimed evidence that the company tried to conceal the scale of the pollution. Internal emails were cited as showing that staff knew that disposal of the waste could be hazardous.
The media still cannot publish the findings of the Minton Report's investigation of the scandal - one of the most appalling injunctions in recent memory.
What happened next was the explosive bit. A member of the House of Commons placed a question on what we call the notice paper. Labour MP Paul Farrelly asked what measures ministers were taking to protect whistleblowers and press freedom following the injunction obtained by Trafigura.
The oil trader's lawyers were from the law firm Carter-Ruck, much hated by the London media for its attack-dog approach to ''reputational management issues''. A libel lawyer, David Hooper, said on the death of Peter Carter-Ruck in 2003 that ''he did for freedom of speech what the Boston Strangler did for door-to-door salesmen''.
The law firm managed to extract from the court an injunction so wide not even the fact the injunction existed, let along what it was about or the identities of the parties, could be published.
When it became apparent The Guardian might report Farrelly's parliamentary question, the paper received one of the law firm's menacing letters, saying to report the member's question would be a contempt of court.
The paper was reduced to saying it could not identify the MP, the question, or which minister might answer it. ''The Guardian is also forbidden from telling its readers why the paper is prevented - for the first time in memory - from reporting parliament.'' All that could be reported was that the case involved ''the London solicitors Carter-Ruck, who specialise in suing the media for clients, who include individuals or global corporations''.
That was on Monday this week. As Alan Rusbridger, the editor of The Guardian, left his office that evening he posted this on Twitter: ''Now Guardian prevented from reporting parliament for unreportable reasons. Did John Wilkes live in vain?''
Wilkes was the 18th century journalist and MP instrumental in getting government to accept the right of printers to publish actual accounts of parliamentary proceedings. Arguably, he was the father of political journalism.
Wilkes campaigned for the enforcement of the Bill of Rights of 1689, which granted a lot of civil and political rights, including that ''proceedings of parliament ought not to be impeached or questioned in any court or place out of parliament''.
It was imported into Australia and other Commonwealth countries. It is quite amusing to reflect that at the time of its introduction England had been through a period of political upheaval. Opposition to the bill was widespread, particularly by non-Protestants. It was said to be unconstitutional, would lead to chaos and spread uncertainty. Much the same widely misinformed racket accompanies the idea that Australia embrace legislation to give a range of civil and political rights to people outside the magic circle of privileged lawgivers and newspaper shrills.
But Rusbridger's Twitter item set off a chain reaction that was beyond the lawyers and the courts to stop. Out there in blogosphere, the reaction was astounding. Rusbridger said: ''Twitter's detractors are used to sneering that nothing of value can be said in 140 characters. My 104 characters did just fine.''
Twitter users then tracked down Farrelly's question and links to it were published widely.
By midday on Tuesday ''Trafigura'' was among the most searched words in Europe. Stephen Fry re-tweeted everything to his 830,000 followers.
An hour before The Guardian was to go to court to seek permission to publish the question, Trafigura and Carter-Ruck threw in the towel. The new ''other'' media turned a secret into a notorious avalanche of information.
Source: The Sydney Morning Herald