Internet freedom prevails over Guardian gag order

October 13, 2009

padraig_reidy– Padraig Reidy is news editor at Index on Censorship. The opinions expressed are his own.-

Solicitors Carter-Ruck have withdrawn the terms of an injunction preventing the Guardian from reporting a parliamentary question by Newcastle-under-Lyme Labour MP and former journalist Paul Farrelly.

This has been seen – rightly –  as a victory for free expression, and a demonstration of the amazing power of the web in the face of attempted censorship.

Once the Guardian had published its slightly cryptic story on its website last night, containing such tantalising phrases as: “Legal obstacles, which cannot be identified, involve proceedings, which cannot be mentioned, on behalf of a client who must remain secret”, it was inevitable that people would go searching.

Within hours, the Internet was alive with speculation, links to leaked documents, and republication of cached articles. At one point on Tuesday morning, phrases relating to the case constituted four of Twitter’s top ten “trending topics” — a scarcely believable profile for a story that, technically, no one was supposed to be talking about.

Carter-Ruck seem not to have noticed the mindset of an increasing number of web users: once we are told we can’t know something, modern web users will set about finding out about it with a gleeful determination — and more often than not with neither the cautiousness nor the proprietary attitude to information that can slow down “traditional” reporting.

The Streisand Effect — whereby attempts to censor information end up ensuring the information is only spread more widely, is something that lawyers and judges are going to have to figure out.

The strong libertarian culture of the Internet quite simply means that you cannot get away with telling people what to do, and what to read, while surfing. Today’s Twitter triumph is more a victory for the culture of online social networking than it is for the technology.

And an important victory it is. What was at stake here was not merely a newspaper’s right to tell a story, but the very principal of open democracy: if newspapers and other media cannot report everyday parliamentary proceedings without fear of the courts, it is not just the journalism industry that suffers: it is the common citizen’s ability to participate in, and scrutinise, politics.


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All this proves is that people who use social media are too lazy and/or stupid to go and find a copy of Hansard for themselves. The content of a tabled question is not, and to the best of my knowledge never has been, secret. The lawyers seeking the injunction were certainly every bit as as stupid as the people trying to defeat it without going through the courts, but the injunction itself wasn’t really that important – it did after all reportedly only name two publications. At least one of which has a record of partiality in the reporting of the Trafigura affair.

Posted by Ian Kemmish | Report as abusive

You gotta love the internet, it’s like a tv with billions of channels and a book had a love child.

Posted by Orgizmo | Report as abusive

People who use social media are too lazy and/or stupid?

What an absolutely moronic thing to say – as even a moments casual interaction will show, social media users represent a cross section of the populace: and that cross section will include people that are significantly more active and intelligent than your good self!

in this instance, Twitter and the blogosphere have acted like a fire alarm, calling attention to Carter Ruck’s obnoxious conduct – the real work now begins in writing to MPs, lobbying parliament and no doubt directly confronting Carter Ruck.

Social Media are a tool – and an exceptionally useful tool at that – for people to empower their lives.

Your participation is not required.

Posted by Ian Lowe | Report as abusive

and yet you seem afraid to even mention what the question had been.. ?

Posted by Glenn | Report as abusive

Good point about Hansard, Ian. But what do you mean by your comment that “At least one of which has a record of partiality in the reporting of the Trafigura affair”.
If you mean the Guardian and Private Eye don’t just publish the line put out by the company’s spin doctors then, that’s a good thing – right? Or perhaps you would prefer that we only ever get to hear the spin?

Posted by Citiboy | Report as abusive

Citiboy – well, naturally Ian Hislop wouldn’t be funny if he was impartial; that’s the essence of satire. And if you wave an environmental story anywhere near the Guardian’s op-ed team the results are pretty much a foregone conclusion. My point was merely that, having already established that the lawyers were not being exactly bright, they were also demonstrating normal human nature.

Yes, in an ideal journalistic world, I’d like to see someone of the stature of John Simpson ferreting about on the ground gathering real evidence, and not taking either side’s word for granted. But those days appear to be behind us, and social media are a poor substitute.

Posted by Ian Kemmish | Report as abusive