Twittering classes cannot be gagged

What an astonishing story. A month ago The Guardian revealed secret documents containing details of damages offered to more than 30,000 Africans by British oil trader Trafigura for the dumping of toxic waste in the Ivory Coast.

Interesting enough but that’s not the astonishing bit. The story I am referring to broke on Monday night. The front page of Tuesday’s edition of The Guardian carried a story claiming that it was being “gagged” from reporting parliamentary proceedings for the first time in recent UK newspaper history.

A question was to be asked by an MP and answered by a minister regarding… something. The Guardian wasn’t allowed to identify anything about its own story.

Hours later (and it’s surprising that it took that long) the ban was lifted. It turns out Paul Farrelly MP was scheduled to ask justice secretary Jack Straw to assess the current legislative framework that protects whistleblowers and press freedom in the light of recent injunctions taken out by, among others, Trafigura and its solicitors Carter-Ruck. The said injunction was taken out by the law firm before The Guardian’s original story in September.

This week’s gag was to stop the same newspaper reporting that the parliamentary question due to be asked would mention the first injunction.

Lamentable as such behaviour may be, it is also so woefully lacking in guile or understanding of the current media and communications environment, that I find myself feeling sorry for Trafigura and Carter-Ruck.

Predictably, and this was understood fully by Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger, placing the story on the front page of the newspaper and all over the blogosphere, meant any legal restrictions trying to contain the story would soon collapse under the weight of public pressure.

Sure enough, Twitter became crammed with politicians, journalists and thousands of angry citizens, sick of being told by those in public life when they are to be trusted with public information. And as Ruth Mortimer commented on her blog (see http://brandstrategy.wordpress.com/2009/10/13/how-a-ban-onthe-guardian-became-a-pr-and-social-media-storm/) the ban was futile. The
information was already freely available all over the internet.

Why? Because parliamentary proceedings are our business, and because that’s the way media and comms work these days. The new consumer is empowered by digital and social media as well as a thirst for any knowledge that others try to keep from them.

Mark Choueke, editor

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