Thursday, 22 October 2009

The Guardian, Trafigura and the right to publish

Last week a colleague sent me a link to a story on the media guardian site the likes of which I have never in over 14 years of working in the media. The key extract of which can be read below:

“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.” “Legal obstacles, which cannot be identified, involve proceedings, which cannot be mentioned, on behalf of a client who must remain secret.”

As you can imagine having read that I like thousands of other were intrigued as to what it was all about.

It turns out that British oil trader Trafigura had been hit by a lawsuit by 30,000 Africans claiming that they have been affected by the alleged dumping of toxic waste on the Ivory Coast. Trafigura reacted by hiring libel layers Carter Ruck who slapped injunctions on every media outfit to stop them reporting this.

An MP, Paul Farrelly, then tabled a question in Parliament about this injunction and Carter Rock responded to all threatening with action if anyone covered this question. This goes against hundreds of years of press freedom to report what MP’s say.

Luckily the editor of The Guardian Alan Rusbridger is not only a very clever journalist he also has an excellent understanding of social media. Having signed off the baffling story on the guardian website on the Monday night he personally tweeted on twitter the following: "Now Guardian prevented from reporting parliament for unreportable reasons. Did John Wilkes live in vain?"

Within hours twitter and the blogsphere had gone mental. By the Tuesday morning and a front page lead, the web was in melt down and by lunchtime Carter Ruck and Trafigura had caved in.

Unfortunately for Carter Ruck the internet is a whole new world. Following Rusbringers tweet, a follower of his Richard Wilson put two and two together and searched the parliament website where details of all questions are held. He then saw what it was, did some further web searches and tweeted the whole lot. This was then picked up, passed on and on and the rest is social history.

It was the speed of this that was astonishing. Wilson had made his comments by 9 o’clock and by 10 the well known political blogger Guido Fawkes had blogged on it. By 10am on Tuesday morning even Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg tweeted the following: "Very interested concerned about this #trafigura / Guardian story the LibDems are planning to take action on this."

This is the best example yet of the growing gap between those that understand old and new media and communication. Today the modern consumer is completely empowered by digital and social media with a wealth of knowledge at their fingertips and a desire to know what is being kept from them. Brands and publishers should take note of something that as Rusbridger himself says will no doubt become an MBA case study in the future.

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