Trafigura vs. the Guardian – the beginning

Posted on October 21, 2009

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The Trafigura vs. the Guardian case has whipped up a bit of a storm in the online world, and with good reason. The Guardian gives a good summary of how the whole story came to be, but in a nutshell: 

The Guardian gets its hands on a juicy report connected to toxic waste dumping in the Côte d’Ivoire. 

Carter-Ruck (the lawyers acting for Trafigura) puts a super-injunction on the newspaper preventing it from publishing anything about the report.

 The Guardian learns that there is a parliamentary question lined up uncovering the existence of the injunction – a nice little loophole, as MPs can ask whatever they fancy in parliament and newspapers can report it.

 Carter-Ruck tells the Guardian that under the terms of the super-injunction, to do even that would be contempt of court (i.e. get them into one heck of a lot of trouble).

 The Guardian does the only thing it is allowed to do – publishes a front-page story saying that it had been prevented from publishing the proceedings of parliament. A quick wink-wink to anybody ready to pick up on the fact that something’s happening that they want us to know about.

And that’s where it all kicked off.

It’s the nature of humans that when they’re not allowed to know something, then they damn sure want to know it – whether they actually care about the contents or not. So bloggers worldwide set off in search of what it was they were not allowed to know.

Enter Twitter. One person reading the Guardian and wondering what they’re not allowed to know is one thing. Thousands of people logging on to a website and collectively wondering what it is is another thing altogether. There was outcry, there was backlash, there were huge numbers of internet searches for “Trafigura”.

MPs exploded (not literally, as you might hope) at the very idea of their free speech being gagged by a law firm and demanded an emergency debate on the issue.

As the Guardian prepared to take Carter-Ruck to the high court the next day (where 1.2% of all tweets mentioned the word “Trafigura”) the law firm gave up their claims that the newspaper could not report on parliament. Now, they’ve even released the injunction itself, which the Guardian have annotated for us who aren’t legal junkies.

So what does all this mean for journalism…?

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