Trafigura: A few tweets and freedom of speech is restored

Twitter users claim historic victory for the power of the internet after gagging attempt on routine act of journalism triggers race among bloggers to reveal all

The Guardian story announcing that it had been restricted by an existing high court order from reporting certain parliamentary proceedings had been published online for just a matter of minutes before internet users began tearing apart the gag.

On Monday evening, blogs and the social networking site Twitter buzzed as users rushed to solve the mystery of who was behind the gagging attempt that less than an hour earlier had prevented the newspaper reporting details of a question tabled by an MP to be answered by a minister later this week.

It would normally have been a routine act of journalism which has never, in memory, been prevented before.

Untroubled by the legal restrictions which had confined the Guardian to reporting at 8.31pm that it had been "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", internet users quickly reported that the gag related to a question by the Labour MP Paul Farrelly concerning the reporting of an incident in which toxic waste was dumped in the Ivory Coast.

Farrelly wanted to know which measures ministers had taken to protect whistleblowers and press freedom following an injunction obtained by the oil company Trafigura and its firm of solicitors, Carter Ruck, against the publication of a report into the matter.

After several requests on Monday afternoon from the Guardian's lawyers asking Carter Ruck to alter the terms of the injunction and thereby allow publication of Farrelly's question, the gag remained in place.

But just 42 minutes after the Guardian story was published, the internet had revealed what the paper could not.

Bloggers and the so-called Twitterati tonight claimed a historic victory for the power of the internet over what they saw as attempts by vested interests to shut down freedom of speech.

One of the quickest to reveal the full story was a 34-year old human rights activist, Richard Wilson. He was baking a banana cake in his kitchen in London when he first found out about the gag on the Guardian from a message posted on Twitter.

A few minutes of frantic internet searching later he published the fact that the gag related to Farrelly's questions about Trafigura. He also published the text of the questions itself and became so absorbed in cracking the puzzle, his cake burned to a crisp. He said it was a small price to pay.

"I knew Trafigura were incredibly litigious and I knew Carter Ruck were defending them," he explained. "I had a hunch, so I went to the website of the parliamentary order papers where they publish all the questions, searched for Trafigura and a question from Farrelly popped up and I tweeted it straight away. It took several tweets and then I pasted in the link."

At 9.13pm he signed on to his Twitter account, printed the link to the Guardian report about the gag and wrote: "Any guesses what this is about? My money is on, ahem, #TRAFIGURA!"

By 9.30pm he had published all of Farrelly's questions. He was not alone in trying to crack the puzzle. Paul Staines, the political blogger who uses the name Guido Fawkes, posted a blog making the link between the gag and Paul Farrelly's questions just before 10pm.

From that point a torrent of references to the questions, the gag on the Guardian and Trafigura flooded out. According to Twitter at noon today, the three most popular search terms on the site were "outrageous gagging order trafigura dumping scandal", "ruck" and "guardian".

As exactly the publicity Trafigura was surely trying to avoid grew and grew, the Liberal Democrat leader, Nick Clegg, weighed in on Twitter at 10.01am stating: "Very interested concerned about this #trafigura / Guardian story the LibDems are planning to take action on this."

Mainstream media, including the Spectator website also picked up the story with the thought: "It's hard to recall, even in the long history of appalling gagging orders, a more disgraceful injunction than this."

Satirists, such as Ian Martin, a writer on The Thick Of It, seized the opportunity to amplify the coverage that Trafigura was getting by repeating the company's name again and again to ensure it became a "high trending" topic on Twitter.

During the morning, Private Eye was published and ran Farrelly's questions in full as the first item on its politics page, although the bald presentation with no reference to the gagging order had long been superseded by the reports flowing across the internet.

All the while, efforts were continuing to persuade Trafigura to alter the terms of the order to allow the Guardian to report the parliamentary business, and at 12.19pm Carter Ruck emailed the Guardian agreeing to do so. In the end, the Twitterati claimed victory, led by one of its most popular users, the comedian Stephen Fry. "Can it be true?" he wrote. "Carter-Ruck caves in! Hurrah! Trafigura will deny it had anything to do with Twitter, but we know don't we?"


Robert Booth

The GuardianTramp

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