Cricket fans will know the test match to which I allude here.
It’s the summer of 1990 at Lord’s. England are playing India. Indian captain Mohammad Azharuddin wins the toss and invites England to bat.
Captain and opening batsman Graham Gooch takes the Indian attack for 333 runs in an England first innings total of 653/4.
After the match Mohammad Azharuddin insisted that his decision to insert England was the right one. Even though Gooch hammered another 123 runs in his second innings and England won by some distance. When an opposition batsman hits 450-plus off your bowling, you’ve made a big mistake. You might not be keen to publicly admit it even though the rest of the world can see it’s a big mistake but it remains a big mistake nonetheless.
Yesterday Carter-Ruck solicitors attempted to gag The Guardian from reporting on happenings in the House of Commons because it highlighted the actions of its client Trafigura. The Guardian complied with the ban. Then the story exploded on Twitter and then The Spectator, who published the allegedly offensive question from Paul Farrelly MP. Alex Massie explained that
The Twitterverse is going mental for #trafigura and I suspect that by the time all this is over far more people will be aware of the controversy swirling around Trafigura’s African adventures than would have been the case had they kept quiet and not attempted to silence the press. Combatting this sort of bullying, however, is one thing the blogosphere is good at.
Indeed, the Twitterverse is still talking about #trafigura as I write this. It wasn’t long before Trafigura and Carter-Ruck were the top trending topics of discussion on Twitter. Just like millions of others I had never heard of either Trafigura or Carter-Ruck before this morning. Now their names are irrevocably written in the history books. Trafigura for its deeds in Africa, Carter-Ruck for its misguided belief that it can a) ban reporting of what is discussed in the House Of Commons and b) use legal action to justify this. Campaigners for the reform of England’s libel laws have yet more evidence for their argument.
Eventually Carter-Ruck backed down, but not before an explosion of discussion, damnation and disgust caused reputational damage to both Carter-Ruck and Trafigura. As The Guardian’s report of the backing down states:
The media lawyer Geoffrey Robertson QC said Lord Denning ruled in the 1970s that “whatever comments are made in parliament” can be reported in newspapers without fear of contempt.
Given this ruling, why did Carter-Ruck think they could overturn it? The dramatis personae of this story seems to be somewhat lacking in terms of names. Who at Trafigura objected to the publication of the question? Who at Carter-Ruck lacked Clue to such an extent that they seriously thought such action wouldn’t get highlighted by the blogosphere? Who was the judge who actually approved the ban?
As legal people surely Carter-Ruck have had at least half an eye on the Phorm story. Remember how that backlash started and has continued? That’s right, through techies, internet users and the blogosphere. Bad news travels fast, inappropriate and/or bullying actions are exposed, reputations and share prices take a hammering as a result. Phorm have also used legal threats to try and silence those of us who believe their “Webwise” product is illegal. By the way, I’m still waiting to see that legal opinion, Kent. I’m not going to go away.
So Carter-Ruck have failed to learn lessons from the way Phorm and agencies working on their behalf behaved. Whoops, that’s a big mistake.
Carter-Ruck didn’t properly understand the power that social media via the internet has in its possession. Whoops!
Did Carter-Ruck think for even one moment “Hang on, this has the potential to really hurt us and our client”?
I’ve said many times here that bad news travels faster than good. Trafigura and Carter-Ruck now know how fast.
On their website, Carter-Ruck have an interesting piece on “Obtaining Injunctions“. It’s interesting stuff to the layman, especially the references to Monty Python’s Spanish Inquisition sketch. One thing they seem to have missed in this sketch is the bumbling, inept appearances of the Inquisition and their not knowing how many weapons they actually have. It isn’t fear they generate but disdain through their own daftness.
It is not for me to comment on matters such as the Spycatcher case as I cannot comment from a position of knowledge. Whilst the matters discussed in the article may well apply in other sectors, to try and gag publication of what has already been deemed to be beyond contempt proceedings because of their Parliamentary usage strikes me as somewhat arrogant.
What I will say is that in the first few lines of this piece are mentioned “The risks of it going wrong” and “The risks of it going right”.
Whoever decided to go with this attempt at gagging Parliamentary reporting has had an “Azharuddin moment” and been taken for 333 by Twitter and the blogosphere.
Perhaps it’s now time to recognise that the online world has more influence than many might think. It cannot be denied that dynamic between the mainstream media and social media is changing. I’ll leave it to other commentators to discuss the whys, wherefores and likely (and unlikely) impacts of these events.
I’m sure Master Yoda said “Hmm… learn you should from events Padawan!”