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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How the Conservatives lost the argument over austerity

After repeatedly missing their deficit targets, the Tories can no longer present spending cuts as essential.

“The age of irresponsibility is giving way to the age of austerity,” declared David Cameron at the Conservatives' 2009 spring conference. Fear of spending cuts helped deny his party a majority a year later, but by 2015 the Tories claimed vindication. By framing austerity as unavoidable, they had trapped Labour in a political no man's land. Though voters did not relish cuts, polling consistently showed that they regarded them as necessary.

But only two years later, it is the Conservatives who appear trapped. An austerity-weary electorate has deprived them of their majority and the argument for fiscal restraint is growing weaker by the day. If cuts are the supposed rule, then the £1bn gifted to the Democratic Unionist Party is the most glaring exception. Michael Fallon, the Defence Secretary, sought to justify this largesse as "investment" into "the infrastructure of Northern Ireland" from "which everybody will benefit" – a classic Keynesian argument. But this did not, he hastened to add, mean the end of austerity: "Austerity is never over until we clear the deficit."

Britain's deficit (which peaked at £153bn in 2009-10) was the original and pre-eminent justification for cuts. Unless borrowing was largely eliminated by 2015, George Osborne warned, Britain's public finances would become unsustainable. But as time has passed, this argument has become progressively weaker. The UK has cumulatively borrowed £200bn more than promised by Osborne, yet apocalypse has been averted. With its low borrowing costs, an independent currency and a lender of last resort (the Bank of England), the UK is able to tolerate consistent deficits (borrowing stood at £46.6bn in 2016-17).

In defiance of all this, Osborne vowed to achieve a budget surplus by 2019-20 (a goal achieved by the UK in just 12 years since 1948). The Tories made the target in the knowledge that promised tax cuts and spending increases would make it almost impossible to attain – but it was a political weapon with which to wound Labour.

Brexit, however, forced the Conservatives to disarm. Mindful of the economic instability to come, Philip Hammond postponed the surplus target to 2025 (15 years after Osborne's original goal). Britain's past and future borrowing levels mean the deficit has lost its political potency.

In these circumstances, it is unsurprising that voters are increasingly inclined to look for full-scale alternatives. Labour has remade itself as an unambiguously anti-austerity party and Britain's public realm is frayed from seven years of cuts: overburdened schools and hospitals, dilapidated infrastructure, potholed roads, uncollected bins.

Through a shift in rhetoric, Theresa May acknowledged voters' weariness with austerity but her policies did not match. Though the pace of cuts was slowed, signature measures such as the public sector pay cap and the freeze in working-age benefits endured. May's cold insistence to an underpaid nurse that there was no "magic money tree" exemplified the Tories' predicament.

In his recent Mansion House speech, Philip Hammond conceded that voters were impatient "after seven years of hard slog” but vowed to "make anew the case" for austerity. But other Tories believe they need to stop fighting a losing battle. The Conservatives' historic strength has been their adaptability. Depending on circumstance, they have been Europhile and Eurosceptic, statist and laissez-faire, isolationist and interventionist. If the Tories are to retain power, yet another metamorphosis may be needed: from austerity to stimulus.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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