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 deafening killer - why noise will be the next great pollution scandal

A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. 

Our cities are being poisoned by a toxin that surrounds us day and night. It eats away at our brains, hurts our hearts, clutches at our sleep, and gnaws at the quality of our daily lives.

Hardly a silent killer, it gets short shrift compared to the well-publicised terrors of air pollution and sugars food. It is the dull, thumping, stultifying drum-beat of perpetual noise.

The score that accompanies city life is brutal and constant. It disrupts the everyday: The coffee break ruined by the screech of a line of double decker buses braking at the lights. The lawyer’s conference call broken by drilling as she makes her way to the office. The writer’s struggle to find a quiet corner to pen his latest article.

For city-dwellers, it’s all-consuming and impossible to avoid. Construction, traffic, the whirring of machinery, the neighbour’s stereo. Even at home, the beeps and buzzes made by washing machines, fridges, and phones all serve to distract and unsettle.

But the never-ending noisiness of city life is far more than a problem of aesthetics. A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. Recent studies have linked noise pollution to hearing loss, sleep deprivation, hypertension, heart disease, brain development, and even increased risk of dementia.

One research team compared families living on different stories of the same building in Manhattan to isolate the impact of noise on health and education. They found children in lower, noisier floors were worse at reading than their higher-up peers, an effect that was most pronounced for children who had lived in the building for longest.

Those studies have been replicated for the impact of aircraft noise with similar results. Not only does noise cause higher blood pressure and worsens quality of sleep, it also stymies pupils trying to concentrate in class.

As with many forms of pollution, the poorest are typically the hardest hit. The worst-off in any city often live by busy roads in poorly-insulated houses or flats, cheek by jowl with packed-in neighbours.

The US Department of Transport recently mapped road and aircraft noise across the United States. Predictably, the loudest areas overlapped with some of the country’s most deprived. Those included the south side of Atlanta and the lowest-income areas of LA and Seattle.

Yet as noise pollution grows in line with road and air traffic and rising urban density, public policy has turned a blind eye.

Council noise response services, formally a 24-hour defence against neighbourly disputes, have fallen victim to local government cuts. Decisions on airport expansion and road development pay scant regard to their audible impact. Political platforms remain silent on the loudest poison.

This is odd at a time when we have never had more tools at our disposal to deal with the issue. Electric Vehicles are practically noise-less, yet noise rarely features in the arguments for their adoption. Just replacing today’s bus fleet would transform city centres; doing the same for taxis and trucks would amount to a revolution.

Vehicles are just the start. Millions were spent on a programme of “Warm Homes”; what about “Quiet Homes”? How did we value the noise impact in the decision to build a third runway at Heathrow, and how do we compensate people now that it’s going ahead?

Construction is a major driver of decibels. Should builders compensate “noise victims” for over-drilling? Or could regulation push equipment manufacturers to find new ways to dampen the sound of their kit?

Of course, none of this addresses the noise pollution we impose on ourselves. The bars and clubs we choose to visit or the music we stick in our ears. Whether pumping dance tracks in spin classes or indie rock in trendy coffee shops, people’s desire to compensate for bad noise out there by playing louder noise in here is hard to control for.

The Clean Air Act of 1956 heralded a new era of city life, one where smog and grime gave way to clear skies and clearer lungs. That fight still goes on today.

But some day, we will turn our attention to our clogged-up airwaves. The decibels will fall. #Twitter will give way to twitter. And every now and again, as we step from our homes into city life, we may just hear the sweetest sound of all. Silence.

Adam Swersky is a councillor in Harrow and is cabinet member for finance. He writes in a personal capacity.