Free speech, a supposedly inalienable right locked into our DNA, is under increasing threat from our respectable establishment, notably large corporations and notorious legal firms. Fortunately that great leveller, the internet, has come to our salvation.
I find it both amazing and disturbing that the British oil trading firm Trafigura and their lawyers Carter-Ruck were able to ride roughshod over the cherished principle of parliamentary privilege by obtaining an injunction to prevent the Guardian reporting a Parliamentary Question tabled by Labour MP Paul Farrelly.
Fortunately, the strong arm of this particular version of the law was unable to control Twitter and the blogosphere and the story is now in the public domain. While I largely agree with Iain Dale that the story would have come out without the online pressure, it would undoubtedly have taken longer and therefore have had less impact.
The injunction, one of a growing number of “super-injunctions” under which commercial corporations claim the right to keep secret the fact that they have been to court, was taken out to prevent disclosures about the real nature of some of Trafigura’s activity. We now know that Paul Farrelly wanted to ask about the toxic oil Trafigura dumped in the Ivory Coast, west Africa, in 2006 making thousands of people ill, an episode the organisation obviously wanted to keep under wraps.
This is, indeed, a shameful story. A large corporation does something harmful and immoral to a large number of extremely poor and vulnerable people. An MP finds some information about what has gone on and seeks to raise it in Parliament. The corporation then hires a law firm to close the issue down.
Fortunately those who wished to keep their vile actions secret have been exposed and parliamentary privilege remains intact. However, free speech is not conditional; now that it has been restored in this particular instance we must make sure it always remains a central part of our DNA.