The Trafigura business should make us feel good today. A not inconsiderable blow was struck for free speech, and it couldn’t have happened without the internet, or more precisely without social media networking.
That much is fairly indisputable.
But – and I hate to sound like I’m throwing a bucket of cold water all over your twittery love – what exactly was the alchemy that transformed a Twitter trending topic into an admission of defeat by one of the world’s ghastliest legal enterprises?
Let’s summarise the timeline:
May-September 2009 – the Trafigura scandal unfolds, Carter-Ruck starts doing its hush-work, against the BBC Newsnight team for starters, and to be quite honest no-one notices a thing.
11 October 2009 – Carter-Ruck seek an injunction forbidding the Guardian (and another paper apparently) from reporting on a question being asked in parliament which will, inevitably, draw attention to the Trafigura scandal.
12 October 2009 – the story that is not a story appears on the front page of the Guardian. Bloggers scent something amiss. Guido Fawkes does his thing and (I believe) is the first person to identify the question that is probably involved. Richard Wilson is, so far as is known, the first person to identify the question that is probably involved.
evening, 12th October – early tweeters on the Trafigura scene that I am aware of include @jackofkent and @dontbefooled. They bash heroically away at it until it starts to spread. Outrage begins to take hold.
c. 9am, 13 October 2009 – the People’s Republic stirs into wakefulness to find Trafigura at number 10 in trending topics, reads up on it, and joins in. But does it really matter that we’re all tweeting about it? I wonder aloud to my tweetmates. Are we not a tiny, self-selecting and slightly odd section of the population? Are we over-inflating our sense of importance here? What can we actually do to Carter-Ruck? How can we actually defend press freedom by sitting on ergonomic chairs getting cross?
Never fear, says the wise Chicken Yoghurt:
By 10am Trafigura is the top trend, and Carter-Ruck and the Guardian in various permutations follow closely behind. Up to 2pm it stays in the upper half of the trend board, and as of now (4pm) it’s still there, slipping slowly down. Outrage abounds magnificently all day. People run out of profanities with which to dub Carter Ruck. Stephen Fry gets involved. Tweeters from the Guardian spread the news that they are going to court at 2pm this afternoon in an attempt to get the injunction lifted.
11am - The Lib Dems request an urgent question and debate on the press’ freedom to report parliament. The move is carried out by two Lib Dem MPs, Paul Burstow and David Heath. The question and the call for the debate are carefully designed to elicit the same answer as Paul Farrelly’s question, but without mentioning Trafigura, the Minton Report or Carter-Ruck. This means the press can report on their questions, because not even the most myopically reactionary judge is going to grant an injunction for these:
I would be grateful if you would give consideration to the following Urgent Question to the Lord Chancellor:
“To ask the Lord Chancellor if he will make a statement on the prevention of reporting of parliamentary proceedings by means of legal injunction.”
I would be grateful if you would give consideration to an urgent debate under Standing Order 24 on the freedom to report on Parliamentary Proceedings.
That’s it. Carter-Ruck is well and truly Carter-Rucked. Even if their injunction against the Guardian’s reportage of Farrelly’s question is upheld, they can’t prevent the Guardian or any other outlet from reporting the much more broadly phrased questions of Burstow and Heath. Absolutely nothing except (more) bad publicity will result from seeking to uphold the gag. By the end of the day, thanks to those wretched Lib Dems, the whole story is absolutely guaranteed to be out anyway.
1pm The Guardian’s editor calls victory. Carter-Ruck has backed down.
I’m sure I’ll be horribly unpopular with all the true twitter believers out there, but doesn’t that slightly strike you as a game change right there between 11am and 1pm? A bit of an old-fashioned, corridors-of-power, meatspace game change? The Carter-Ruck office probably did not, whatever we may like to think, spend the whole morning staring in horror at the Twitterfeed. But they would have learned about the pesky Lib Dems and their demands for debate and answers. They would also know (this is where Twitter does come in) that the documents they were trying to suppress were all over the internet already.
This is what makes the internet a force for change. Not the act of tweeting itself, but what happens as a result. Chicken Yoghurt is right – it’s not how many people tweet, however much of a tidal wave it feels. It’s who’s reading. In this case, Lib Dems were reading. The opinion of thousands has to be matched with critical action by those placed to take it. People forget this in their fuzzy enthusiasm for the power of the internet. It has enormous power, yes, but unless channelled by some external agency it is like the power of a storm over the remotest stretch of ocean, roaring away to itself in the wilderness.
Kudos is due to everyone who tweeted, and enormous kudos is also due, I think, to the Lib Dem parliamentarians and their advisers for providing the channel on this occasion. They recognised the immediacy of the moment, saw they could, for once, actually make a difference, and seized on it.
The trouble is, this leaves us in a bit of a spot. Basically, it is my contention that without the terribly old-fashioned business of two sympathetic parliamentarians placing questions on the House of Commons’ order paper, Carter-Ruck would not have felt sufficiently under pressure to back down. Some power to the people that indicates.
We may not have sympathetic parliamentarians every time. We certainly don’t see responses this lightning from the Lib Dems every time.
To ensure our political life is proof against this sort of outrage we still need total reform of the political system, to make our representatives responsive to our opinions as a matter of course. Otherwise we’ll always have to do this, shout about an issue, big ourselves up and hope someone with some actual power notices, because without them we don’t stand a chance. I don’t think this is a system to be particularly proud of, whatever the outcome today.