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Guardian still under secret toxic waste gag
Wednesday October 14, 2009
Legal obstacles, which cannot be identified, involve proceedings, which cannot be mentioned, on behalf of a client who must remain secret.
Over the last 24 hours, a lot of self-congratulating hyperbole has appeared on and off line about how the popular short message service Twitter saved free speech in the UK. Twitter did not save free speech — and free speech has not been saved.
The twitter "back-patting storm" follows an agreement not to use an existing High Court gag order to block the Guardian's reporting of a single sentence made in parliament by Paul Farrelly MP. Farrelly's question related to press freedoms and in particular, a leaked WikiLeaks report, the so-called "Minton report", which exposed a toxic dumping disaster inflicted on the Ivory Coast by oil trading giant Trafigura and its contractors and hospitalized up to 100,000 people.
However, the secret gag order against the report, granted on September 11, remains in effect, and entirely prevents the reporting of the report's contents. It is not the only one. Last month, the Guardian revealed that it had been served with 10 secret gag orders—so-called "super-injunctions"— since January. In 2008, the paper was served with six. In 2007, five. Haven't heard of these? Of course not, these are secret gag orders; the UK press has given up counting regular injunctions.
To understand the crucial events in this case, we need to go back to September when commodities giant Trafigura obtained its "super injunction" preventing discussion of the leaked Minton report into the Ivory Coast disaster.
During September and the preceding months, investigative reporters from the Guardian, Norway's NRK TV, the Independent, the BBC's Newsnight, the Dutch press, Greenpeace and lawyers for the victims were collaborating to show Trafigura's culpability.
Trafigura knew the investigation teams had a copy of the Minton report, because journalists had asked the company to respond to the report's findings. Instead of providing a countering opinion, the company went to the High Court and obtained a secret injunction preventing journalists from telling the public anything at all about the document.
Although the Minton report is a merely a short engineering and legal assessment of the Ivory Coast disaster, no-doubt one among many, instead of commissioning it directly, the company "laundered" the report through its lawyers, Waterson & Hicks. This permitted Trafigura to claim legal privilege on the document should it leak; which is precisely what the company did, when it did.
An undisclosed UK High Court judge, who we can reveal to be Justice Maddison, accepted this parlour trick, and on September 11, issued a broad gag order with secrecy provisions that prevented even the existence of the gag order from being reported.
On September 14, WikiLeaks released the full Minton report in an attempt to undermine the injunction. The UK press was then left in the Kafkaesque position where neither the Minton report, nor the injunction against it could be mentioned, despite the report appearing on the front page of WikiLeaks.
A few days later, in private correspondence with Norwegian journalists Synnøve Bakke and Kjersti Knudssøn from the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation, another legal firm representing Trafigura shed some light on the injunction:
- Your questions of today do also reveal the fact that you are in possession of a draft, preliminary expert opinion produced by Minton Treharne & Davies Ltd, and that you appear to be ready to disclose information from this report. Trafigura looks very seriously upon this, as disclosing any information from this report would be a clear breach of confidentiality and privilege. The report is clearly privileged and confidential and was obtained unlawfully by whoever is responsible for it coming into your possession. Please be aware that on Friday of last week, our clients sought and obtained an injunction in relation to this document and information contained in it against the Guardian newspaper and Persons Unknown, pending a further hearing.
A few days after the investigative stories appeared on September 17, Trafigura entered into a settlement with over 31,000 Ivorian class-action claimants—while continuing to deny any responsibility for the disaster.
Since direct reports of parliamentary proceedings are largely exempt from libel laws in the UK (most recently under the 1996 Defamation Act), it is not uncommon for MPs to mention censored facts, so that newspapers will be able to safely take the facts from their parliamentary speeches. This same approach was used by Paul Farrelly MP, to expose the Minton report gag.
Farrelly, a former Observer section editor, tabled the following question notice in the House of Commons, and in the process, exposed two secret gag orders, including the gag against the Minton report:
- 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.
Trafigura's lawyers, Carter Ruck, no doubt recognizing an attempt to use parliament as a venue to not only subvert the September 11 gag, but as a way to attack their suppression business, told the Guardian that they would consider reporting Farrell's question a contempt of the September 11 gag order.
That this extraordinary claim was made and accepted must have shocked Carter Ruck as much as much as anyone else.
The Guardian, decided to make the gag a national issue. David Leigh, lead author on the Trafigura story, wrote a carefully worded article designed to inflame, and the Guardian gave it substantial prominance on October 12 and 13:
- The Guardian is also forbidden from telling its readers why the paper is prevented – for the first time in memory – from reporting parliament. Legal obstacles, which cannot be identified, involve proceedings, which cannot be mentioned, on behalf of a client who must remain secret.
These and other subtle clues, which included a specific mention of the law firm "Carter Ruck", were enough for a number of professional blogs, such a the parliamentary watch blog Order-Order, and WikiLeaks, to soon find the question notice on the House of Commons' website transcript (Hansard).
Twitter then promoted the visibility of the Guardian article, the WikiLeaks copy of the gagged Minton report and the articles about the Commons' question. However there are only a few players who affected this case's inevitable legal conclusion.
- The investigative team of the traditional media, Greenpeace, the victims and their respective legal teams.
- WikiLeaks, who released, and kept up, the report at the center of the injunction as well as the gag order.
The lesson for Carter Ruck and other lawyers: be careful what you wish for.
Had Twitter not existed, we would have seen the same legal outcome, for such an affront to the UK political classes could never have survived the attentions of a national newspaper like the Guardian. However, the September 11 gag, which threatens only the interests of the press and the people, continues, as do a vast number of other injunctions, acquired by those with unequal access to justice and something to hide.
Under pressure from legal costs, UK papers have silently removed some of the original September 17 dumping investigations. For example, the Independent's "Toxic Shame: Thousands injured in African city" no-longer "exists" except at WikiLeaks.
Now is not the time to be distracted from this reality, or to see the unravelling of a grotesque attack on parliamentary reporting as step forward; it is a return to last week. We are back at the UK censorship status quo, which may be described, without irony, as privatized feudalism.
So take your hands from each other's backs, sharpen your (s)words—and get to work. The battle isn't over, however it just may, be beginning.
- Minton report: Trafigura toxic dumping along the Ivory Coast broke EU regulations, 14 Sep 2006
- Minton report secret injunction gagging The Guardian on Trafigura, 11 Sep 2009
- The Independent: Toxic Shame: Thousands injured in African city, 17 Sep 2009
- Trafigura threats to Norwegian press over Minton report exposing toxic dumping, Sep 2009