Alex Massie

British Press Banned from Reporting Parliament. Seriously.

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This time, perhaps even the lawyers have gone too far. It's hard to recall, even in the long history of appalling gagging orders, a more disgraceful injunction than this:

The Guardian has been prevented from reporting parliamentary proceedings on legal grounds which appear to call into question privileges guaranteeing free speech established under the 1688 Bill of Rights.

Today's published Commons order papers contain 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.

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.

The only fact the Guardian can report is that the case involves the London solicitors Carter-Ruck, who specialise in suing the media for clients, who include individuals or global corporations.

Remarkable, even by the appalling standards of our libel laws and addled judiciary. This appears to be the question in, er, question:

From, “Questions for Oral or Written Answer beginning on Tuesday 13 October 2009″



N 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.

And this is a report on how the oil company Trafigura tried to cover up pollution in Africa.

This country's libel laws have been a disgrace for years and one can only hope that egregious abuses of an already abusive system persuades folk that, dash it, something must be done.

UPDATE: The Twitterverse is going mental for #trafigura and I suspect that by the time all this is over far more people will be aware of the controversy swirling around Trafigura's African adventures than would have been the case had they kept quiet and not attempted to silence the press. Combatting this sort of bullying, however, is one thing the blogosphere is good at.

UPDATE 2: There is, at the time of writing, no mention of this story on the BBC's website. Why on earth not? (There is now - and of course, as commenters point out, Newsnight has covered Trafigura's African exploits before. And been sued for their troubles. So my criticism of the Corporation was somewhat unfair. Mea culpa.)

UPDATE 3: 1.20pm: Carter-Ruck have abandoned their attempt to prevent the reporting parliamentary proceedings. The Twitterati and the Blogoshpere have prevailed in the great Battle of Trafigura. But it is ridiculous that such a battle for such an elementary press freedom had to be fought in the first place. The Lib Dems are quite right to call for a parliamentay debate on this.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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