Last week saw two extraordinary stories in the papers (or not, as the case may be), both linked by a couple of common themes: filth, and Twitter.
As you will know if you read this blog regularly, I have written before about the importance of free speech, and I have been watching with interest over the last year or so as Private Eye has been increasingly drawing attention to the use of super-injunctions brought against the press. Super-injunctions, if you haven’t somehow come across the term, are like normal injunctions but they’ve changed their clothing in a phonebox and now wear their underpants on the outside. Actually, if a normal injunction prevents a paper from reporting a story, a super-injunction prevents the paper even from mentioning that there was a story in the first place. It was designed to protect individuals, but lately corporations have been trying it on for size.
Such was the case recently with Trafigura. Now, I have to be a bit careful here with what I allege – particularly since I’ve just linked to the company’s own website – but I can explain the situation thus. A ship, the Probo Koala, leased by Trafigura, took a hundred tons of toxic waste to the Ivory Coast where a local subcontractor dumped it at sea instead of properly processing it. Trafigura maintains that the large number of people who subsequently became ill after apparent contact with the hazardous material, and indeed the 15 deaths that occurred after exposure, are coincidental, nothing to do with the waste, nothing to do with Trafigura, and are in fact so far removed from the company that the €152 million that they paid in compensation had, in some metaphysical way, nothing whatsoever to do with the circumstances that prompted the payment. However, when the Guardian newspaper obtained evidence that seemed to suggest corporate wrongdoing, the so-called ‘Minton Report‘, a super-injunction was imposed, banning the paper from mentioning the report or indeed the injunction. (The law firm representing Trafigura, incidentally, are Carter-Ruck, known of old to Private Eye readers as something else that sounds not dissimilar, and apparent real-life counterparts to LA-based law firm Wolfram & Hart).
Now this is where it gets interesting. Paul Farrelly, MP for Newcastle-under-Lyme and former journalist himself, raised the issue in the House of Commons, asking 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.”
Once Farrelly did that, the information was out in the open as – and this is important – a matter of public record, as any publishing organ is constitutionally protected if it chooses to publish what goes on in the Houses of Parliament. So when the Guardian contacted Carter-Ruck and told them this, the law firm had no choice but to…err…contest the idea and warn the paper that if it published it would be in contempt of court and could face sequestration of its assets.
The Guardian responded with a front page story about the prevention of publication of parliamentary proceedings, but wasn’t sure that it could do more than that, as the legal waters were sufficiently muddied to have their own lawyer, a QC, unsure of the territory. Private Eye took a more robust ‘publish and be damned’ approach, and did so, though the way was led by political blogger Paul Staines, writer of the Guido Fawkes blog. Alan Rusbridger, editor of the Guardian, also tossed a snowball down the mountainside by tweeting “Now Guardian prevented from reporting parliament for unreportable reasons. Did John Wilkes live in vain?”
Twitter limbered up, girded its loins and went for it. By midday the next day (last Tuesday), ‘Trafigura’ was one of the most popular search terms on Twitter, and there was absolutely nothing they or Carter-Ruck could do about it. Within an hour the law firm had surrendered, and the Guardian reported the question, the injunction and the Minton Report.
This is why I like the internet.
Bizarrely, it wasn’t the last time last week that Twitter attacked those spreading vile muck around the world. As you will know, I have a deep-seated detestation of those who would, either with venal ignorance or malicious aforethought, denigrate those different to themselves. Again, I have written about this before, but recently my attention was drawn to perhaps the single most hateful article I have ever read online.
This hideous abortion of a column made me angrier than just about anything else I have ever read. In fact my mood took me past the talus and scree of anger, up through the crevasses of wrath and left me standing on the barren, icy plains of pure glacial fury. For those of you who haven’t clicked the link, or are perhaps wisely waiting for me to explain what it is before you go there, a columnist for the Daily Mail called Jan Moir has written an article about Stephen Gately’s death. She explains, on the basis of her no doubt world-renowned forensic expertise (she is a restaurant critic, after all), that the coroner’s report is wrong and that Gately’s death was not natural. She equates his death with the breaking of a teacup in a cottage on holiday. She raises the dread word ‘cannabis’ and leaves it hanging there as though it meant something. She manages to link the death to that of Kevin McGee, Matt Lucas’s partner. And the common thread throughout the article is that Gately died because he was gay. According to Jan Moir, her with the face like a slapped haddock, homosexuality is now fatal. It’s a deathstyle choice (as is celebrity – she begins the article, after all, with a list of ‘famous people likely to meet a bad end’).
That’s brilliant, Jan. The article is poorly written, poorly researched, poorly opined, and please, please, please just go away and never write anything again. Roger Ebert, the Pulitzer-prize -winning movie critic, once wrote a review of the film ‘Wolf Creek‘ in which he said “it made me want to vomit and cry at the same time”. Jan Moir has achieved something similar with me.
I am not alone in feeling this way. Once again, Twitter came out fighting, led by Stephen Fry and Derren Brown (Fry managing the magnificently dismissive “I gather a repulsive nobody writing in a paper no one of any decency would be seen dead with has written something loathesome and inhumane.”) The marvellous twitterers between them managed to reduce Moir’s name to – at the very best – only the most disgusting constituent part of mud, and, somewhat taken aback, Moir responded with a statement in which she concluded “In what is clearly a heavily orchestrated internet campaign I think it is mischievous in the extreme to suggest that my article has homophobic and bigoted undertones.”
She’s right, and I for one protest the idea that the article “has homophobic or bigoted undertones”. They are, if anything, OVERtones, neon-tones, This-is-the-whole-bloody-focus-of-my-article -tones. There’s nothing shy or retiring about them. Changing the title of the article from its original “Why there was nothing ‘natural’ about Stephen Gately’s death” to the current “a strange, troubling and lonely death” doesn’t disguise this.
The ‘internet campaign’ wasn’t orchestrated, it was spontaneous, and it was deeply-enough felt that the PCC website crashed for several hours on the basis of the sheer number of complaints it received (at the last count, 25,000. Not that it’ll do any good – the editor of the Daily Mail Mail is Paul Dacre, and the Chairman of the Press Complaints Commission is…Paul Dacre).
Charlie Brooker wrote an extremely good article about the situation, managing a coherency where most others were left frothing at the mouth.
Oh well. A triumph for legitimate outrage, this week, but it hasn’t half been tiring trying to keep up…
I think it’s appropriate, therefore, to conclude with some vegetable Zen: