On Freedom of Speech

The Guardian speaks out in “Parliament and free speech: The right to know”.

Editorial, The Guardian, Wednesday 14 October 2009

The Bill of Rights, passed 320 years ago, is clear: “Freedom of speech and debates or proceedings in parliament ought not to be impeached or questioned in any court or place out of parliament”. As the joint committee on parliamentary privilege added a decade ago, “Grievances, great and small, can be aired, regardless of the power or wealth of those criticised”. So readers of the Guardian yesterday had good reason to be alarmed by a report that the “Commons order paper contained a question to be answered by a minister later this week. The Guardian is prevented from identifying the MP who has asked the question, what the question is, which minister might answer it, or where the question is to be found”.

That media organisations were unable to report a parliamentary question was due to a so-called “super-injunction” obtained by the notorious law firm Carter-Ruck on behalf of Trafigura, a large London-based trading company. A “super-injunction” is one which not only prevents any publication, but which is itself secret. Search in vain for the case in the court lists of the high court in London: it appears only as “RJW and SJW v The Guardian”. Under its terms, the Guardian was prevented from publishing a certain document: it was also banned from revealing that Trafigura had been to court to obtain an injunction. When we became aware that the existence of this order had been mentioned in a parliamentary question we sought to vary the terms of the injunction. We were advised by Carter-Ruck that publication would place us in contempt of court.

There are three separate legal issues at the heart of this case. The first is prior restraint, which casual readers may have thought had died a death after Thalidomide or the Pentagon papers. It has not. Trafigura has, on grounds of confidence, suppressed the Minton Report, which is connected to the dumping of toxic waste in Ivory Coast. The company has paid damages to 31,000 Africans in relation to this dumping. No newspaper can reveal the contents of this report, but at least we can now say that it exists and has been rendered secret. The option of “publishing and be damned” is not available.

The second principle is that of open justice. There is no sound reason why the fact of the Trafigura hearing should not have been be routinely recorded, and the wide-ranging injunction made a public document for all to see. The minister of justice and/or the lord chief justice should give firm guidance to judges that it is against public policy for secret justice to occur and, except in exceptional circumstances, for secret injunctions to be granted.

The final principle is the ability to report what goes on in parliament. It is scandalous that a law firm acting on behalf of a wealthy trading company should have thought, for a moment, that it could gag media organisations from reporting parliamentary business. These are lawyers who seem to have lost sight of the fact that people risked their liberty and their lives to fight for the right to report what their elected representatives say and do. It is little wonder that some social media websites went into virtual meltdown yesterday at the arrogant effrontery involved.

Trafigura is an unappetising company which purchases smooth PR (it was the official sponsor of the recent British Lions tour) with the same no-expense-spared approach as it has to buying silence. It has threatened to sue journalists in a number of European countries and is even now involved in another aggressive libel action against BBC2’s Newsnight. It is rather shameful that British judges should have spared the company’s blushes by handing down secret injunctions. But at least the principle for which John Wilkes fought and was imprisoned in the 1770s – the right to report parliament – has not been clouded.

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Gagging The Guardian – Not

Yesterday The Guardian was prevented from publishing a question put forward by a member of parliament to the UK Parliament by legal threats from one of the parties involved. The question was:

Paul Farrelly (Newcastle-under-Lyme): To ask the Secretary of State for Justice, what assessment he has made of the effectiveness of legislation to protect (a) whistleblowers and (b) press freedom following the injunctions obtained in the High Court by (i) Barclays and Freshfields solicitors on 19 March 2009 on the publication of internal Barclays reports documenting alleged tax avoidance schemes and (ii) Trafigura and Carter-Ruck solicitors on 11 September 2009 on the publication of the Minton report on the alleged dumping of toxic waste in the Ivory Coast, commissioned by Trafigura.

The Guardian said the gag order “called into question privileges guaranteeing free speech established under the 1688 Bill of Rights”, and made it clear that it was “also forbidden from telling its readers why the paper is prevented – for the first time in memory – from reporting parliament”.

Naturally, outrage flushed through the veins of the social networks and The Guardian pronounced triumphantly this morning that “Twitter can’t be gagged“.

Here is a graphical (or some sort) timeline of how the blogosphere versus Trafigura and Carter-Ruck unfolded over the last 24 hours or so.

Now I haven’t exactly grown up having privileges to the First or the Fifth amendments, but I certainly can appreciate a certain Mr Euginedes when he says:

“One day these highly-remunerated libel lawyers are going to wake up and realise that they aren’t being paid in guineas any more and that, thanks to this thing called the Interwebs, they can’t shut down freedom of speech the way they used to in the old days.”

Other things I learnt of because of this story:  The Streisand Effect, caustic washing (a process whereby gasoline is treated with caustic soda to remove impurities and increase its resale value), and Morus.

The F word, aka Bloomberg buys BusinessWeek

Food, fashion, financials:  None of these F-words are safe in this “new economy”.

Last week, publishing giant Conde Nast unexpectedly pulled the plug on four magazine titles Gourmet, Modern Bride, Elegant Bride and Cookie, gave the ax to editorial and sales teams in the digital division and may now even cut W magazine’s publishing frequency in half.

And today, financial data giant Bloomberg steps into the realm of consumer-focused media by buying BusinessWeek magazine.

The price tag? Undisclosed, although it is expected to be “relatively little”.

According to WSJ, BusinessWeek made $100 million a year for McGraw-Hill, which has owned the title for 80 years. But last year, the well-known magazine lost $43 million, and losses are expected to exceed $60 million this year, according to people familiar with the matter.

remember when

Remember when jotting down your thoughts involved paper and a pencil (like Hemingway did with his trusty Moleskine)?

Remember when newsrooms were boisterous and pumping with action – daily, not just in the dead of one fine night when the Royal Thai Army staged a coup d’état?

Now, as the muted whir of typing pervades every classroom, newsroom and office, replacing speech, debate and interaction, I remember when.  And I struggle.

(I also turn 28 today.  Hence, reflection.)

J-School @ Columbia University

I start my M.A. in Journalism (Business) program at Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism today.  Here’s to an eight-month roller-coaster ride!


Butler Library at dusk, (c) Me, with a Canon EOS 30D

mobile blogging – test

Why I Love My iPhone, Reason #1114: I can blog from it.

Hope this works!

I move markets with my stories

Two days ago I broke a story about how Orchard Road’s first new malls in a decade are set to open over the next few months… with many empty shops (article republished here on AsiaOne).

After the opening bell, Bloomberg Singapore decided that a 0.8 per cent fall in the Straits Times Index was my fault.

Singapore Stocks: CapitaMall, Chartered Semi, Cosco Corp. c.2009 Bloomberg News By Jonathan Burgos March 12 (Bloomberg) – Singapore’s Straits Times Index fell 0.8 percent to 1,493.74 at 10:16 a.m. local time, erasing gains of as much as 0.5 percent earlier. Three stocks dropped for each that rose among the gauge’s 30 constituents. The following companies are among the most active in the stock market today. Stock symbols are in parentheses after company names. Shopping mall operators: CapitaMall Trust (CT SP), partly owned by CapitaLand Ltd., lost 4.8 percent to S$1 after the Straits Times reported that Singapore’s recession is deterring tenants from leasing retail space at new malls along the Orchard Road shopping belt. Citing industry executives, the newspaper said a new mall built by Lend Lease Corp. has occupancy of 50 percent to 70 percent, while another being constructed by CapitaLand Ltd. (CAPL SP) and Sun Hung Kai Properties Ltd. had so far leased 50 percent of the space. CapitaLand slipped 1.6 percent to S$1.90. Suntec Real Estate Investment Trust (SUN SP), one of two REITs controlled by Hong Kong billionaire Li Ka-shing in Singapore, dropped 2.9 percent to 49.5 cents.

It’s a stretch on their part, clearly, but it’s a pretty sweet feeling.