Tuesday 13 October 2009

Carter-Ruck 0 Guardian 1 (o.g, blogosphere assist) ... but what next?

It is a happy thought that the finest legal minds at Carter-Ruck solicitors will have spent most of today explaining to the equally well-renumerated suits at Trafigura why their tried and tested writ happy playbook has overnight caused the firm even more reputational damage even than dumping that waste off the Ivory Coast and begrudgingly trying to avoid making any settlement for ages did to start with.

And given how blogosphere versus mainstream media debates so often go around in circles while missing the point, it is good to see us all working together on the side of the angels this time.

So I not sure whether it is Carter-Ruck 0 Guardian 1 (own goal; blogosphere assist) or Blogosphere 1 Trafigura 0 but its pretty clear that they are lucky to get nil.

(One rather assumes that Trafigura never really aspired to SuperBrand status, being the sort of corporate mark you go for precisely because you are planning to do a lot of very dodgy stuff and so wish to sail under a name no-one will ever quite be able to either remember or spell, Still, they've finally become cyberspace legends now).

But don't forget, you are never more vulnerable than when you've just knocked one in the onion bag at the other end. And it certainly isn't - and shouldn't be - even half-time yet.

Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger, who is tonight the new champion of the twitterverse (as long as he remembers that we want to #savetheobserver for life, not just for Christmas), tweets that

Now support BBC Newsnight which is being sued by #Trafigura and #carterRuck over toxic waste expose.

Good thinking! Let's get those writs flying again. But at least we're all watching closely now.

But, more broadly, wouldn't it be a good idea to use this enjoyable moment of consciousness-raising to think about how we might sustain our attention and sort out a few deeper issues out too.

Others may have a range of ideas. Here are three modest proposals of my own:

1. Couldn't the editor of several national newspapers jointly write to Carter-Ruck to demand an assurance that they will never take out an injunction against Parliamentary proceedings again?

Failing a satisfactory reply, isn't it time that the newspapers brought us rather more information about who these Masters of the increasingly Kafkaesque libel Universe are, what makes them tick, to see if some sustained public scrutiny might yet even stir memories of a professional conscience somewhere? Perhaps we could hear some peer group pressure from senior legal profession voices about the value of democracy and the rule of law being rather necessarily intertwined.

2. Perhaps more to the point, I hope Speaker John Bercow will now, with strong all party support, be urgently talking to the Lord Chancellor and other top judges. I don't know what the legal technicalities would be of the judiciary making clear that no such injunction would or should ever be granted again.

But as we've now got a new Supreme Court it would be a good moment to establish some good case law, at least on the narrow point of privileged Parliamentary proceedings.

3. The broader issue is the shocking state of our libel laws. I think we need to think about a new campaign too - to educate and inform about the law as it is, and to build an effective campaign to bring about change.

One good start would be a Select Committee public hearings and a broad inquiry. Let's give Carter-Ruck their chance to come out of the shadows there too.

The new blogosphere dynamics offer an important opportunity to animate a cause too often seen as a bit dry and dusty, and a priority only for a fairly narrow liberal media and legal elite.

They also mean many more of us amateur voices increasingly need to be aware of some of the basics of how to deal with both vexatious and legitimate challenges - and we have also seen some emerging alliances, not just between professional and amateurs, and an ability to make common cause among very different brands of liberalism (and libertarianism too) of the left, right and centre.

There would be some important issues to thrash out. I think we obviously need some libel laws. Very few of us either in the blogosphere or the mainstream media believe in a wild west free-for-all where there is no defence against character assassination.

But the status quo is one where vexatious intimidation by chequebook and litigation can often scare off significant media players, to say nothing of the amateur civic voice.

But there is too little public discussion of where the boundaries lie - nor high-profile forums which can bring together expert legal, media and Parliamentary voices with the new citizen activism of the internet elsewhere, in a way which could have an important educative and campaigning effect.

So let's take inspiration from Carter-Ruck - and work out how they can inspire us to take practical steps to tilt the balance back towards freedom.


Robert said...

Sunder- on your final point, PEN and Index on Censorship are about to publish the report in our inquiry into libel laws. It is fairly wide ranging and we have spoken to lawyers, the media, publishers and bloggers ove the course. We will be submitting some sensible recommendations for reform and will be working to build a coalition in support of them. It would be great to have the Fabians support and you will be invited to the launch on 10th November.

Better still, there is a fantastic body of support fo te Sense About Science camapigning for Simin Singh, who is being sued bt the BCA. So much of the infrastructure you speak of is already in place. We do need PARLIAMENTARY support however, especially from Labour. Select Committee MPs like Farrelly are already on the case, as are the Lib Dems. The task is to peruade Labour (and Tory) policymaking fora, that there is enough consensus for change. Manifestos are being written now...

Sunder Katwala said...

Thanks I was aware of the inquiry, but not its imminent (and timely) publication. That could provide a good catalyst.

When you say the infrastructure is in place, I think my point is that there are good reactive upsurges (in this case scientists are strongly involved). What I think doesn't happen enough are the type of linkages between reactive campaigns, and sufficient attempts

In a paragraph, what might a Labour manifesto, and other parties, ideally pledge ... You could use Ed Miliband's LabourSpace site to put up one of your central recommendations when you publish, as he is just opening a round, and try to get backbench, blog and grassroots support to push it. While there are complexities about the detail, I don't see why the party should be hostile to it. And there should be groups of opinion within the party that should be quite keen,

Sunder Katwala said...

"... or sufficient attempts to sustain that into constructive pressure outside of the individual case/cause"

Stuart White said...

Great post, Sunder, helpfully setting out the big picture for constructive change. It would be great if we could develop a cross-party consensus on libel law reform. You also riase some interesting issues about professional ethics. I wonder if law school teaching includes courses on the 'ethics of lawyering in a democratic society'.