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The Internet as Toxic Avenger: Trafigura and the Ungagging of the Guardian

BY Micah L. Sifry | Tuesday, October 13 2009

Here's a cautionary tale in how not to manage your message in a networked media age, or rather, further evidence of John Gilmore's brilliant maxim, "The internet interprets censorship has damage and routes around it." Late Monday night in England, the Guardian posted a strange article reporting that it was being prevented from reporting on a question pending in Parliament. The only thing the Guardian could say was that the case involved Carter-Ruck, a prominent PR firm that specializes in working with global corporations. But that didn't stop the blogosphere, which immediately took affront at the assault on free speech. Within 24 hours the whole story was out in the open, to the chagrin of Carter-Ruck and the oil commodities firm Trafigura, which was trying to hush up an embarrassing report on toxic dumping in the port of Aibidjan by one of its ships in 2006.

Here's the gist of the Guardian's original report on its gagging yesterday:

Today's published Commons order papers contain a question to be answered by a minister later this week. The Guardian is prevented from identifying the MP who has asked the question, what the question is, which minister might answer it, or where the question is to be found.

The Guardian is also forbidden from telling its readers why the paper is prevented – for the first time in memory – from reporting parliament. Legal obstacles, which cannot be identified, involve proceedings, which cannot be mentioned, on behalf of a client who must remain secret.

The only fact the Guardian can report is that the case involves the London solicitors Carter-Ruck, who specialise in suing the media for clients, who include individuals or global corporations.

The British blogosphere went into hyperdrive speculating about the case, and swiftly zeroed in on this report, posted to Wikileaks, connecting the oil commodity firm Trafigura to a report of toxic dumping off the coast of Africa. Apparently Carter-Ruck was trying to keep the issue from surfacing publicly and had obtained a court injunction barring coverage of a pending question that was being raised on the matter by a Member of Parliament. The word "Trafigura" also took off on Twitter, essentially making Carter-Ruck's legal efforts essentially moot.

Here you can see how the gagging of the Guardian was rapidly overwhelmed by mentions of Trafigura on Twitter, via Trendistic.

The company even trended worldwide, according to Trendsmap:

And here you can see how attention in the Twittersphere flowed, in real time, around the scandal:

As one snarky blogger put it, "Marketing experts were stunned today at the success of media law firm Carter-Ruck's high profile 'gagging order' campaign, designed to generate buzz around their client Trafigura's latest toxic waste product....Public awareness of the brand name 'Trafigura' leaped by around 700%, up from 0.1% market penetration the day before. A spokesman said: 'This is a great result. Nobody had heard of us or our toxic waste dumping practices until Carter-Ruck got involved. This kind of publicity is priceless!' An industry analyst said: 'It's been a clever job, making great use of viral and self-facilitating media nodes. Brands are starting to realise that to really make a splash you need to go the extra mile, do something big and zany - Carter-Ruck's strategy of assaulting British democracy and raping the very concept of free speech delivered an incredible awareness boost."

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