Pieced together from several news sources (Sky News, BBC, Independent), the story goes like this:
A multi-national oil firm called Trafigura dumped 500 tons of toxic waste on the Ivory Coast of Abidjan, West Africa. Official estimates said 15 people died and tens of thousands of people fell ill as a result. Trafigura deny any deaths took place, but offered £950 to each of the 31,000 people afffected, as well as around £100million to the Ivorian Government towards the clean-up. The Guardian newspaper plans to report this, but Trafigura’s lawyers, Carter-Ruck, issued a ’super-injunction’ to prevent from being made public. A super-injunction is basically the stuffing a big, smelly sock into the mouth of the media. It’s obtained at the High Court, and it means that not only is everyone gagged, they’re not even allowed to say they’ve been gagged about anything. They’re not even allowed to report that an MP has tabled a question about it. This was effective on anyone investigating Trafigura.
Irishtimes.com said on Wednesday:
The legal challenge by lawyers Carter-Ruck caused alarm as it threatened the freedom enjoyed by journalists and writers since the Bill of Rights was passed in 1688 to report on anything put before the Houses of Parliament.
And a quote from the Independent:
In a perfect world, from a lawyer’s point of view, that should have been enough. It meant that any media outlet that had shown an interest in Trafigura was silenced, while the rest were not told that anyone had been gagged. It all fell apart because the idea that commercial interests can get gagging orders that apply even to what is said in Parliament runs counter to the 1688 Bill of Rights, which protects all parliamentary proceedings from libel lawyers. The fact that Carter-Ruck had apparently silenced the House of Commons to protect a client’s reputation was so unusual that even The Wall Street Journal thought it worth reporting.
Carter-Ruck’s other problem was that all questions by MPs are published on Parliament’s website. Once it was known that they had a gagging order that covered an MP’s question, all anyone needed to do find out more was go to www.parliament.uk and enter “Carter-Ruck” in the search engine. Those who did were immediately directed to a question from the Labour MP Paul Farrelly, a member of the Commons Culture and Media Committee, to the Justice Secretary, Jack Straw. It asked “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… 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.
Brilliant. But it gets better. During this week, all of this tumbled into Twitter and word spread fast. Copies of the secret report found their way onto the internet, and Mr Farrelly (the MP who asked the question), understandably displeased that his question was gagged, stood up in Parliament and asked John Bercow, the Speaker “to consider whether Carter-Ruck’s behaviour constitutes potential contempt of Parliament”. Yesterday afternoon, before the court hearing to have the injunction terms altered began, Carter-Ruck turned tail, saying they never intended to gag Parliament. So the ban was lifted…
More information can be had here about why they dumped the slops, including a chain of emails which makes for pretty creepy reading.
One issue which bothers me is: How did Trafigura get such a tight injuction? Why did the high-courts agree to prevent this from being exposed? How was is deemed to be in the public interest?
It is rather thought provoking, and should be looked at more closely. It is through sheer people-power that this has been made public and is a score for investigative journalism, but it concerns me that a deliberate environmental disaster which kills people can be kept secret at all. What else is being kept from us? And how many of us are going to find ourselves in possession on information of such gravity in the future, only to be forced to keep quiet about it? What would you do?