Archive for December 2009
The day after the BBC backed down in the face of legal threats from Trafigura over their claim that the company’s waste caused deaths…
In August 2006, toxic waste was brought to Abidjan on board the ship Probo Koala, which had been chartered by oil-trading company, Trafigura.
This waste was then dumped in various locations around the city, causing a human rights tragedy. More than 100,000 people sought medical attention for a range of health problems and there were 15 reported deaths.
On 23 September 2009, the High Court of England and Wales approved a $45 million settlement between nearly 30,000 victims of the toxic waste dumping and Trafigura.
From Index on Censorship
Index on Censorship and English PEN today have expressed dismay that the BBC has conceded the libel action brought by toxic waste shippers Trafigura in the High Court. We believe this is a case of such high public interest that it was incumbent upon a public sector broadcaster like the BBC to have held their ground in order to test in a Court of law the truth of the BBC’s report or determine whether a vindication of Trafigura was deserved.
The case was brought by Trafigura after the BBC claimed in its Newsnight programme of 13 May 2009 that Trafigura had caused deaths by being involved in the dumping of toxic waste in Abidjan in the Ivory Coast.
The United Nations Special Rapporteur Prof Okechukwu Ibeanu concluded in a report on 3 September 2009 that:
“On the basis of the above considerations and taking into account the immediate impact on public health and the proximity of some of the dumping sites to areas where affected populations reside, the Special Rapporteur considers that there seems to be strong prima facie evidence that the reported deaths and adverse health consequences are related to the dumping of the waste from the Probo Koala.”
Trafigura has paid out $200 million to the government of the Ivory Coast, and in London settled for £30 million a joint action made by 31,000 Ivorians.
But the BBC has now apparently conceded that the toxic waste dumped by the Probo Koala did not cause deaths, serious or long-term injuries and retracted their Newsnight piece in full and removed all reports from their web site.
English PEN and Index on Censorship believe that costs were a major factor behind the BBC’s decision. According to a leading media lawyer, Mark Stephens of FSI, the cost of such a case would have been in excess of £3 million. In its statement the BBC said:
“The BBC withdraws the allegation that deaths, miscarriages or serious or long-term injuries were caused by the waste and apologises to Trafigura for having claimed otherwise.”
John Kampfner, CEO of Index on Censorship said:
“Sadly, the BBC has once again buckled in the face of authority or wealthy corporate interests. It has cut a secret deal. This is a black day for British journalism and once more strengthens our resolve to reform our unjust libel laws.”
Jonathan Heawood, Director of English PEN, said:
“Forced to choose between a responsible broadcaster and an oil company which shipped hundreds of tons of toxic waste to a developing country, English libel law has once again allowed the wrong side to claim victory. The law is an ass and needs urgent reform.”
Are Carter Ruck losing their touch? BBC article dubbing Trafigura a “Killer toxic waster” seemingly unaffected by recent legal action…
To my mind the piece I’ve linked to above is even more damning than the two that Carter Ruck managed to get taken off the BBC’s website – presumably at considerable expense.
The Guardian today confirmed that the substance of Trafigura’s libel case against the BBC’s Newsnight programme was that “that the oil traders had been wrongly accused of causing deaths, not just sickness”. A ‘resolution’ of the case, presumably in Trafigura’s favour, is expected about now.
Yet this article, originating from the BBC World Service, appears to make exactly the same allegation with impunity, and in even starker terms. Are Carter-Ruck losing their touch? Are they really worth the £500 per hour that they reportedly charge?
UPDATE – The grovelling apology has been announced – but at the time of writing the above World Service article is still online. Interestingly, according to CNN, the often-cited “20 experts” who concluded that Trafigura’s waste “did not harm anyone” were not independent – they had all been hired by the company. According to Index on Censorship the case could have cost £3 million to defend – yet more proof of the urgent need for Libel Reform.
UPDATE 2 – The footage has also now disappeared. Guess that’s the end of that then…
UPDATE 3 – Oh look…
Poll: Should the BBC cut senior executive pay to free up cash for a Public Interest Libel Defence Fund?
The BBC appears to have decided to withdraw a hard-hitting news investigation rather than risk a libel action against the controversial oil traders, Trafigura.
Such an action would certainly be costly, yet by failing to stand up to Trafigura, the BBC is sending a message that even the UK’s largest broadcaster can be bullied into sacrificing freedom of speech.
From The Guardian
Trafigura’s lawyers brought a libel action against the BBC on the basis that the oil traders had been wrongly accused of causing deaths, not just sickness. Official statements by a UN investigator, the Ivory Coast government and the British government referred to deaths being caused in Abidjan by the dumping.
But the eventual compensation settlement between Trafigura and the British law firm Leigh Day, which brought the action, resulted in an agreed statement making no claims about deaths. It was said that expert evidence, so far unpublished, found no evidence of any deaths.
BBC lawyers are understood to have been engaged in a mediation process with Carter-Ruck. The BBC would not comment on today’s planned court hearing.
The “One Show” had an excellent feature last night on the Libel Reform campaign, with a truly illuminating contribution (3 mins 55) from Carter-Ruck’s Nigel Tait.
Asked by Mitch Benn why his firm charged such astronomical fees, Tait cited several critical factors, including the high cost of central London office space, and the fact that “we have to write long and expensive letters”.
It struck me that these letters must be very, very, very long indeed – and the postage quite staggeringly costly – to necessitate charging £500 an hour to send them. Poor Nigel Tait must have to write hundreds of thousands of words each time, on dozens of pages of extremely heavy paper.
And then I had an idea. Back in October, the “Twittersphere” mobilised en masse to destroy Carter-Ruck’s Trafigura super-injunction – maybe now it’s time to lend them a hand (it is nearly Christmas, after all). If every person who Tweeted about #Trafigura were to send Carter-Ruck a little book of six First Class postage stamps, maybe this would help to offset some of the humungous expense of all these legal letters that they keep having to write.
So please spare a thought for the libel lawyers this Christmas! Carter-Ruck’s address is 6, St Andrews Street, London EC4A 3EA, and you can buy stamps online here, or at most newsagents.
You can help beat Trafigura’s gag on the BBC by embedding this Youtube video on your website…
…and linking to this pdf!
Late last week the BBC chose to delete from its website a damning Newsnight investigation into the Trafigura scandal, following legal threats from the company and its controversial lawyers, Carter-Ruck.
Previously, other media outlets including the Times and the Independent, had withdrawn stories about the case, amid concerns that the UK press is choosing to engage in self-censorship, rather than risk a confrontation with such a powerful company in the UK’s archaic and one-sided libel courts.
The BBC is a dominant player within the UK media, and its independence – supposedly guaranteed by the millions it receives from licence-payers each year – is vital both to its public service function and its global reputation.
Freedom of speech means very little without an effective and independent media – if it’s true that the BBC’s independence can so easily be compromised by legal threats, then this sets a very dangerous precedent for the future.
The mainstream UK media has so far assiduously avoided reporting on the BBC’s climbdown. Yet it’s an issue that raises serious questions about the state of press freedom in Britain, at a time of unprecedented attacks on the media.