Victory for press freedom . . . and Twitter

Why the Carter-Ruck case against the Guardian collapsed

Guest blog by Samira Shackle

The Guardian's front page today details the collapse of a case to prevent the reporting of a question tabled in parliament, in an important victory for press freedom. The judgment comes in the face of ever-further-reaching injunctions and super-injunctions.

In case you have (somehow) missed the story, the law firm Carter-Ruck -- described as the "sworn enemy" of the Press Complaints Commission by Sir Christopher Meyer, PCC chairman -- used an existing injunction to stop the Guardian from reporting a question asked in parliament by the Labour MP Paul Farrelly. The question related to the dumping of toxic waste in Côte d'Ivoire by the company Trafigura.

But, for the internet-literate among you, this will be old news. Signifying not just a victory for the historical right of the press to report parliamentary proceedings freely, but the growing influence of the internet on real politics, the collapse of the Carter-Ruck case today was a direct result of a spontaneous internet campaign.

After the Guardian reported that something bad was happening (without actually being able to report the nature of the question, who had asked it, where it could be found, which company had sought the gag, or even which order was constraining its coverage), thousands of Twitter users posted details of the question. Such was the volume of tweeting that "Trafigura" was the most popular word on Twitter this morning, with "Carter-Ruck" and "Guardian" not far behind.

The story then made its way on to several prominent blogs, with Richard Wilson and Iain Dale among those commenting on it.

Adam Tinworth was typical of the tone in the blogosphere:

What a morning it has been. The phrase "historic moment" is desperately overused, but it genuinely feels like one just occurred. A very old media process happened -- a company got a gagging order on a national newspaper, to try and quash a negative story about them. And a disparate, disaggregated group of individuals were able to work out the basics of what happened, and use Twitter to make the gagging order meaningless. That was mass, connected journalism at its finest.

The full question was published on the Spectator website yesterday, where Alex Massie points out 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". It also appears in the edition of Private Eye that went on sale today.

As the deluge of self-congratulatory posts on Twitter shows no sign of abating, MPs from all parties condemned Carter-Ruck's actions, which Farrelly says could be a "potential contempt of parliament". The Lib Dem MP Evan Harris called for control of secrecy injunctions.

Meanwhile, Alan Rusbridger, the Guardian editor, issued a "Thanks to Twitter/all tweeters for fantastic support over past 16 hours", using his Twitter account, naturally. How apt.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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The problems with ending encryption to fight terrorism

Forcing tech firms to create a "backdoor" to access messages would be a gift to cyber-hackers.

The UK has endured its worst terrorist atrocity since 7 July 2005 and the threat level has been raised to "critical" for the first time in a decade. Though election campaigning has been suspended, the debate over potential new powers has already begun.

Today's Sun reports that the Conservatives will seek to force technology companies to hand over encrypted messages to the police and security services. The new Technical Capability Notices were proposed by Amber Rudd following the Westminster terrorist attack and a month-long consultation closed last week. A Tory minister told the Sun: "We will do this as soon as we can after the election, as long as we get back in. The level of threat clearly proves there is no more time to waste now. The social media companies have been laughing in our faces for too long."

Put that way, the plan sounds reasonable (orders would be approved by the home secretary and a senior judge). But there are irrefutable problems. Encryption means tech firms such as WhatsApp and Apple can't simply "hand over" suspect messages - they can't access them at all. The technology is designed precisely so that conversations are genuinely private (unless a suspect's device is obtained or hacked into). Were companies to create an encryption "backdoor", as the government proposes, they would also create new opportunities for criminals and cyberhackers (as in the case of the recent NHS attack).

Ian Levy, the technical director of the National Cyber Security, told the New Statesman's Will Dunn earlier this year: "Nobody in this organisation or our parent organisation will ever ask for a 'back door' in a large-scale encryption system, because it's dumb."

But there is a more profound problem: once created, a technology cannot be uninvented. Should large tech firms end encryption, terrorists will merely turn to other, lesser-known platforms. The only means of barring UK citizens from using the service would be a Chinese-style "great firewall", cutting Britain off from the rest of the internet. In 2015, before entering the cabinet, Brexit Secretary David Davis warned of ending encryption: "Such a move would have had devastating consequences for all financial transactions and online commerce, not to mention the security of all personal data. Its consequences for the City do not bear thinking about."

Labour's manifesto pledged to "provide our security agencies with the resources and the powers they need to protect our country and keep us all safe." But added: "We will also ensure that such powers do not weaken our individual rights or civil liberties". The Liberal Democrats have vowed to "oppose Conservative attempts to undermine encryption."

But with a large Conservative majority inevitable, according to polls, ministers will be confident of winning parliamentary support for the plan. Only a rebellion led by Davis-esque liberals is likely to stop them.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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