The game has changed. Whether public bodies, legal institutions and our lawmakers like it or not, the internet is poking holes in precedents and laws in a way that was unimaginable only a few years ago.
The Guardian announced today that it had been banned – for the first time in history – on reporting parliamentary proceedings. Traditionally, anything that is said in Parliament is public record and can be freely reported by the media. However, a firm of solicitors, Carter Ruck (of long renown if you ever read Private Eye) has managed to get an injunction banning the Guardian from reporting (in its own words):
Legal obstacles, which cannot be identified, involve proceedings, which cannot be mentioned, on behalf of a client who must remain secret.
I’m sure in the offices of the lawyers they were high-fiving each other at their success in getting this unprecedented injunction passed. I’m equally sure that their joy will be shortlived. Their client is a company called Trafigura – who have been implicated in a toxic-waste dumping scandal which is alleged to have injured thousands of Africans.
When the news broke, there was the usual non-committal shrug from the universe at another tale of corporate evil, but clearly the company would have been desperate to quieten down the news of the story. After all, despite all the recent hoo-ha about how amoral markets are, most people would hesitate to invest in a company that dumped toxic waste on a quiet stretch of African coastline. So, hire some bigshot legal team to gag the press and job done.
Only, if you want to read what the Guardian can’t say…
When I started writing this post a few minutes ago, there were 114 Tweets on ‘trafigura’. Right now, there are 2,354. I type pretty fast, so that gives you some idea of how quickly this is blazing through the public conscious right now. And in that small figure, allied to the link I just shared with you, lies an important lesson about how the world has changed since the creation of most of our legal laws.
Our laws were set up to muzzle big institutions like newspapers etc. By and large, those organisations still live in fear of due process and legal threats. But when knowledge passes into the hands of the many, that law becomes worthless. Is there even a way you can gag 3,271 Twitter users (latest count)? I doubt it. And since the information is spreading like wildfire, it will now gain a vast amount of attention that it probably never would have done before. Hell – if Stephen Fry tweeted about eating Spam, their sales would probably double.
The lesson here is that companies need to wise up. Fast. The days when corporate malfeasance could be hushed up by a deal cut in the smoke-lined back rooms is over.
4,487 tweets and counting….