Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Shocking 'Super Injunction' Gags Guardian

A Guardian gagging order has raised the hackles of hacks and the blogosphere, highlighting the disgraceful rise of the super-injunction and long held rights to report on parliament.

The thin end of the wedge throws up basic issues of press freedom which has long been a campaigning cause célèbre for magazines like Private Eye.

Now the Guardian has been caught out by the catch-all super-injunction, prevented from reporting parliamentary proceedings on spurious legal grounds.

The blogosphere has been quick to flag up the outrage, most notably Guido, with others nudging the story along, blowing the gaffe on firms few had heard of before and making a mockery of the original gagging order.

Pre-emptive high court orders are common. But if a firm or individual tried to injunct a newspaper and the paper said it would fight and justify any subsequent libel action, that was enough for the judge to throw it out.

Not any more. Lawyers, it seems, can get a draconian injunction, no questions asked, at the drop of a hat, raising fundamental issues of press freedom and prior restraint.

The new breed of super-injunction is all-powerful and all-embracing. A catch-all, with newspapers left with a dog bites man non-story of 'an unnamed individual obtaining an unnamed injunction from an unnamed judge about an unnamed matter'.

Faced with getting something out in the open, the public interest recourse was to parliament, with a willing MP raising the matter under parliamentary privilege and the press then free to report parliamentary proceedings without fear of contempt of court.

The Orange Party has used that very legal device to name shame in the public interest, with an MP raising a matter under commons privilege, leaving journalists legally free to report and name.

But the Guardian is prevented from identifying the MP who has asked the question, what the question is, which minister might answer it, where the question is to be found and why the paper is prevented from reporting parliament.

The only fact the Guardian can report is that the case involves London libel firm Carter-Ruck, who specialise in suing the media for clients, and therein lies the clue.

A quick glance at the published commons order papers contain an MPs' question to be answered by a minister later this week.

Parliamentary questions are in the public domain on the official commons order paper and hence can be reported - by everyone except the Guardian. And that makes the whole gagging thing kinda pointless.

Questions by MP, Paul Farrelly, over Carter-Ruck and oil trader Trafigura are there for all to see and draw their own conclusions.
"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."
Private Eye's long running legal battle with former law society president, Michael Napier, doesn't escape the commons question.
"Paul Farrelly (Newcastle-under-Lyme): To ask the Secretary of State for Justice, what assessment he has made of the Court of Appeal judgment in May 2009 in the case of Michael Napier and Irwin Mitchell v Pressdram Limited in respect of press freedom to report proceedings in court."
Indeed Private Eye reports the Guardian has been served with at least 12 notices of injunctions that cannot be reported this year alone, compared with six in 2006, five in 2005.

This is the real outrage. No one knows just how many super-injunctions there are or which judges are issuing them because by their very nature they cannot be reported. Farrelly's questions cut to the quick.
"Paul Farrelly (Newcastle-under-Lyme): To ask the Secretary of State for Justice, if he will (a) collect and (b) publish statistics on the number of non-reportable injunctions issued by the High Court in each of the last five years."
"Paul Farrelly (Newcastle-under-Lyme): To ask the Secretary of State for Justice, what mechanisms HM Court Service uses to draw up rosters of duty judges for the purpose of considering time of the essence applications for the issuing of injunctions by the High Court."
Since the 18th century, when MP John Wilkes' stand led to chants of 'Wilkes and Liberty', the right to keep the public informed has been enshrined in law.

At the heart is the public's constitutional right to know what their elected representatives are up to. And the right to know about the dodgy dealings of public figures and big corporations.

LibDems are now calling for a parliamentary debate on the press gagging and urging justice secretary Straw to answer MPs' questions on the outrage.

UK courts have become a safe-haven where it seems anyone from anywhere in the world can get a gagging injunction and big corporations and rich individuals can exploit the 'no publicity' culture.

The only recourse is to faux-outrage, with newspapers joining a bandwagon condemning "vile and viscous rumours swirling around" about some celebrity or politician, which at a stroke gets the allegations from the private into the public eye.

UPDATE 1.15pm: The Guardian has been ungagged and is now free to report, er, what everyone else has been reporting. A small victory for the freedom of the blogosphere.

No comments: