Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Why is Twitter going mad about Trafigura?

I have to confess that I'd never heard of Trafigura until today. Then, this morning, I logged into Tweetdeck and found a stream of tweets containing tagged #trafigura so intense that it felt like being bombarded by water cannon. It's even made it into Twitter's trending topics.

So who are these people, and what's all the fuss about?

Well, their own corporate brochure describes them as the "world's third largest independent oil trader". From the same document, we can also see that they're bloody rich. While small businesses in this country still struggle to get a fair deal from their banks, this company tells of having access to $17 billion of credit, assets of $1 billion and a turnover of $73 billion last year. Enough ready cash, then, to afford to engage expensive lawyers. Rich enough, as well, to ensure that they carry out their work and, for example, dispose of any toxic waste, for example, properly and safely.

Moving away from their own information, a rudimentary Google search reveals that the Independent newspaper has written about them quite a lot. An article entitled "The Dark Secrets of the trillion dollar oil trade" is bound to entice an enquiring reader.

Then of course we have their biggest controversy to date, concerning the dumping by one of its sub-contractors of toxic waste off the Ivory Coast which led to residents falling ill. Although an out of court settlement was reached with some of the residents, environmental group Greenpeace is trying to get Dutch prosecutors to bring murder and manslaughter charges against the company.

Today we saw the Guardian tell how it had been banned from publishing details of a question being asked in Parliament and outlining what it intends to do about it. Cleverly, though, it realised that it wasn't banned from publishing the name of the expensive lawyers who had obtained that Court injunction, Carter Ruck.

The Guardian knew that every journalist, blogger and outraged individual on the planet would pounce upon the Parliamentary Order of Business paper like a pack of frenzied vultures and wouldn't take long to work out that Carter Ruck was in fact mentioned in a Parliamentary Question along with their Clients, you guessed it, Trafigura.

They would then, because they weren't prevented from doing so, give that Parliamentary Question in full, giving it much greater publicity than it ever would have had.

This is Paul Farrelly MP's question in full:

"Paul Farrelly MP: "To ask the secretary of state for justice, what assessment he has made of the effectiveness of legislation to protect (a) whistleblowers and (b) press freedom following the injunctions obtained in the High Court by (i) Barclays and Freshfields solicitors on 19 March 2009 on the publication of internal Barclays reports documenting alleged tax avoidance schemes and (ii) Trafigura and Carter-Ruck solicitors on 11 September 2009 on the publication of the Minton report on the alleged dumping of toxic waste in the Ivory Coast, commissioned by Trafigura."

Well, certainly, it looks like Mr Farrelly's question has answered itself - clearly current legislation is powerless to prevent large, rich corporations from gagging a free press from reporting on activities in Parliament.

Parliament needs to stand up against this sort of corporate bullying and I'm delighted (though not surprised) to see that Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats are taking this very seriously indeed, joining in the Twitter campaign to say:

Very interested concerned about this #trafigura / Guardian story the @LibDems are planning to take action on this

Very shortly afterwards, we heard from Jo Swinson that:

"RT @LibDemPress @LibDems have requested urgent question and debate on preventing reporting of parliament #Trafigura"

I think Parliament and the Government needs also to assess whether current legislation holds companies properly to account for the environmental damage they cause. Is it not time that they had to show as much responsibility to the environment as they do to their shareholders?

I expect Trafigura will be mentioned in many inventive ways in Parliament over the next few days. Jo Swinson already has done so, tweeting that she "was able to mention #trafigura in China debate by making point about media censorship & power of the internet.

While we can all take some satisfaction in the internet rising up and sticking two fingers in Trafigura's and its expensive lawyer's direction, longer term action is needed to stop large, rich corporations interfering with press freedom and particularly the reporting of what happens in Parliament. The Liberal Democrats are clearly up for the fight, but what about the Tories? Will they take any meaningful action against the interests of big business? Will the Government stand up for the rights of Parliament and a free press?

It's up to the internet, having rushed to the defence of the press and parliament, to keep up the pressure and make this into a long term campaign for effective legislation stopping this sort of blatant abuse of freedom.

UPDATE: I'm notorious for being late, but how come is the BBC only reporting this at 12:33, after me? And it fails to mention Trafigura at all. Why?

UPDATE 2: 13:00 It all changes so quickly. A few months ago, I ditched Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger as one of the people I followed on Twitter - too many tweets, too little time. A stupid move - he's now been reinstated and has not long ago reported that Carter Ruck has caved in and the Guardian is now free to report on the details. Presumably the firm weren't able to send anybody to Court as they were too busy wiping the egg from their faces.

Too late, though - the genie is out of the bottle, and we need to make sure that the right of papers to report what happens in Parliament is not interfered with again.

UPDATE 3: You have to love Jennie for her original take on this, Stephen continues his satirical streak and and Andrew gets serious.


lauraO said...

38 Degrees are currently running a campaign on this. Take action now by emailing your MP and asking them to take a stand. Take action now, it only takes 2 mins. Go to:


Caron said...

To be honest, Laura, I tend to avoid 38 Degrees like the plague. I rather took against what I saw as a mean spirited and spiteful injunction to harass MPs on their holidays.

Thanks for the link, though.

Alec said...

It goes beyond the issue of questioning environmental bad-guys... it's the parlous state of British libel laws which allowed Carter-Ruck to think it could subvert the 1688 Bill of Rights, and has now caused Peter Bottomley to report them to the Law Society.

Other examples include Roman Polanski's having been permitted to speak via video-link when taking Vanity Fair to court overallegations he'd chatted-up someone at his wife's funeral. Quite how a self-confessed child-rapist had any reputation to loose, I don't know, but he did and was spared the indignity of coming to London so he could then be arrested pending deportation.

The Guardian managed this skillfully, but is receiving less support for another writ from Carter-Ruck over its printing an article referring to existing allegations of war-crimes during the 1971 East Pakistani War against Chowdhury Mueen-Uddin; director of Muslim Spiritual Care Provision in the NHS, who was until recently vice-chairman of the East London Mosque and London Muslim Centre and was involved in setting up the Muslim Council of Britain.


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