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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Labour finds it easier to ignore the working class than to persuade them

The metropolitan left needs to start acting as if it is even partly as much concerned about Rochdale as it is about Aleppo.

There’s surely a deliciously bitter irony in the fact that Michael Gove’s favourite work of history is George Dangerfield’s 1935 classic The Strange Death of Liberal England. Beloved of the common reader, mistrusted by those haughty “experts” we’ve had enough of, Dangerfield tells of a British liberal consensus eroded over decades but eventually wiped out by the carnage of the First World War. For the Great War, read the cataclysm of last June’s Brexit vote, relished by Gove and the like, and you have lessons regarding the strange, ongoing death of Neoliberal England.

The year after Dangerfield’s volume appeared, 200 men marched from Jarrow to London to implore the Conservative prime minister Stanley Baldwin to bring jobs to their beleaguered town. The smooth and emollient Baldwin wouldn’t see them, which suggests that the notion of an aloof metropolitan elite turning its back on a rusting, post-industrial north is no modern invention.

Dangerfield never offers a cogent analysis of why the normally placid British began to throw themselves under police horses, go on hunger marches, join militant unions and generally abandon their consensual deference in favour of harsher doctrines. He found it as bewildering and mysterious as the tides. The death of what we might call Neoliberal England is much more explicable, if unpalatable to some. Liberal commentators have been rudely awakened to the fact that benign progressivists from Professor Pangloss to Francis Fukuyama onwards were wrong. Assuming that, left alone, “the masses” will come around to your way of thinking is rather like those churchmen who thought babies raised in silence would automatically speak English. It is presumptuous and leads to disaster.

I found myself thinking often of lines from Yeats’s “The Second Coming”. Rough beasts slouched through the streets of Batley. Corbyn, Cameron and the other indentured members of the Westminster political class lacked all conviction. Cameron utterly miscalculated the country’s mood and hugely overestimated its opinion of his own appeal and competence. Corbyn lurked silent and wraithlike on the edges of the national debate, a study in uselessness. By contrast, as Yeats put it, the worst (Farage, Johnson, the foaming and splenetic demagogues of the Mail and the Spectator) were full of a passionate intensity. They were full of something else, too, lying through their grins about extra money for the NHS. But by then the damage had been done.

Because immigration had a crude and ugly sound, it was left to only the crude and ugly of politics to mention it. This was a mistake. As Adam Shatz put it in the London Review of Books, few mainstream politicians wanted to engage with “the fabled white working class . . . which most of us have found it easier to hate than persuade”. Yet persuasion is important, however little the present leadership of the Labour Party seems to care for this element of politics. One gets the distinct impression that Jeremy Corbyn and his acolytes would prefer the purity and posturing of permanent opposition rather than the messy, compromised business of government. They offer ineffectuality and disdainful superiority dressed up as a kind of saintly decency. Maybe Jeremy feels that by not doing anything, he cannot do anything wrong. He should be disabused of this notion, and quickly.

Second, and this would seem so obvious as to not need saying, Labour needs to reconnect with its former industrial heartland. This doesn’t necessarily mean “turning to the right” or “abandoning left-wing principles”, or even embracing the dreaded “Blairism’’. But it does mean addressing (even with nose pinched between fingers) the legitimate concerns in the north and the Midlands about immigration, jobs and welfare. The metropolitan left needs to start acting as if it is even partly as much concerned about Rochdale as it is about Aleppo.

People disagreeing with you might be irritating – even galling – but it is not undemocratic. Democracy and liberalism are not synonymous. You can have one without the other. We struggled through most of the 1980s nominally democratic but unarguably illiberal. What Labour needs now is, perhaps, fewer ideologues and a few more psephologists, someone who might conceivably tell the party how voting works and how elections are won. If so, some of my former A-level sociology and politics students in Skelmersdale are probably still available for work.

Stuart Maconie is a writer and broadcaster

Stuart Maconie is a radio DJ, television presenter, writer and critic working in the field of pop music and culture. His best-selling books include Cider with Roadies and Adventures on the High Teas; he currently hosts the afternoon show on BBC 6Music with Mark Radcliffe.

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition