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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Theresa May's U-Turn may have just traded one problem for another

The problems of the policy have been moved, not eradicated. 

That didn’t take long. Theresa May has U-Turned on her plan to make people personally liable for the costs of social care until they have just £100,000 worth of assets, including property, left.

As the average home is valued at £317,000, in practice, that meant that most property owners would have to remortgage their house in order to pay for the cost of their social care. That upwards of 75 per cent of baby boomers – the largest group in the UK, both in terms of raw numbers and their higher tendency to vote – own their homes made the proposal politically toxic.

(The political pain is more acute when you remember that, on the whole, the properties owned by the elderly are worth more than those owned by the young. Why? Because most first-time buyers purchase small flats and most retirees are in large family homes.)

The proposal would have meant that while people who in old age fall foul of long-term degenerative illnesses like Alzheimers would in practice face an inheritance tax threshold of £100,000, people who die suddenly would face one of £1m, ten times higher than that paid by those requiring longer-term care. Small wonder the proposal was swiftly dubbed a “dementia tax”.

The Conservatives are now proposing “an absolute limit on the amount people have to pay for their care costs”. The actual amount is TBD, and will be the subject of a consultation should the Tories win the election. May went further, laying out the following guarantees:

“We are proposing the right funding model for social care.  We will make sure nobody has to sell their family home to pay for care.  We will make sure there’s an absolute limit on what people need to pay. And you will never have to go below £100,000 of your savings, so you will always have something to pass on to your family.”

There are a couple of problems here. The proposed policy already had a cap of sorts –on the amount you were allowed to have left over from meeting your own care costs, ie, under £100,000. Although the system – effectively an inheritance tax by lottery – displeased practically everyone and spooked elderly voters, it was at least progressive, in that the lottery was paid by people with assets above £100,000.

Under the new proposal, the lottery remains in place – if you die quickly or don’t require expensive social care, you get to keep all your assets, large or small – but the losers are the poorest pensioners. (Put simply, if there is a cap on costs at £25,000, then people with assets below that in value will see them swallowed up, but people with assets above that value will have them protected.)  That is compounded still further if home-owners are allowed to retain their homes.

So it’s still a dementia tax – it’s just a regressive dementia tax.

It also means that the Conservatives have traded going into the election’s final weeks facing accusations that they will force people to sell their own homes for going into the election facing questions over what a “reasonable” cap on care costs is, and you don’t have to be very imaginative to see how that could cause them trouble.

They’ve U-Turned alright, but they may simply have swerved away from one collision into another.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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