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Posts Tagged ‘Censorship

Skepticism and freedom

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The video that could see Sanal Edamaruku jailed for “blasphemy”

At Leicester Skeptics in the Pub on June 19th, I’ll be talking about the link between skepticism and freedom of speech.

It’s hard to find a more pressing example of the problems that skeptics can face when powerful institutions threaten freedom of speech than that of Sanal Edamaruku, President of the Indian Rationalist Association. On May 10th, Sanal went on Indian TV to debunk a purported “miracle” at a Catholic Church in Mumbai. Now, after local Catholic groups reported him to the authorities, he is facing a criminal prosecution for “deliberately hurting religious feelings and attempting malicious acts intended to outrage the religious sentiments of any class or community”.

The Rationalist Association have set up an online petition calling on the Catholic community to withdraw their complaint, and urging the Catholic authorities elsewhere in the world to speak out against the prosecution.

The Catholic Church in England and Wales has a Twitter account here if you would like to send them a polite message urging them to speak out against the persecution of Sanal Edamaruku.

Things are also reaching a critical point here in the UK as the Libel Reform campaign seeks to ensure that the government’s proposed changes to our laws really do ensure that people asking difficult questions are properly  protected from vexatious prosecutions. The Libel Reform Campaign are now appealing to all those concerned about freedom of speech in Britain to contact their MP and join a mass lobby of Parliament on June 27th.

Written by Richard Wilson

June 18, 2012 at 9:10 pm

Ten questions for the Press Complaints Commission and David Hunt

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Earlier this week, Liberal Conspiracy reported on plans by David Hunt, the new head of the Press Complaints Commission, to “invite political bloggers to volunteer for regulation by the PCC’s replacement. Blogs who promise to abide by the new code will get a ‘kitemark’ of approval.”

This follows a Guardian interview last month in which Hunt appeared to argue that inaccurate reporting by  bloggers posed a “greater challenge” than the (now well publicised) excesses of the tabloid press.

This seemed like a surprising thing to say given the shocking details that have been emerging from the Leveson inquiry, and my initial reaction was very much in line with that of the “Broken Barnet” blog.

But I was also curious to find out more about the motivation and rationale behind the idea, and the extent to which it has (or hasn’t) been properly thought through.

So I’ve written to David Hunt, C/O his office in the House of Lords, with a series of questions. If I get any kind of response I’ll be posting it here.

Dear David Hunt,

I was intrigued by reports that you are hoping to introduce a “kitemarking” scheme for bloggers. As a writer who has a blog and closely follows a number of others, I have some questions about this idea that I’m hoping you might be able to answer?

1. Despite the recent growth of the internet, many more people still read books than read blogs. Some of the things that are written in books are inaccurate and misleading. Thousands of new books are published in the UK each year. Yet other than the law of libel – which is equally applicable to blogs – there is currently no formal mechanism for challenging inaccuracies published in books. In order to be consistent, will the Press Complaints Commission therefore be seeking to “kitemark” books – or book publishers? If not, why single out blogs and blogging?

2. It has been suggested that you believe inaccurate reporting by bloggers to pose a “greater challenge” than inaccurate coverage by the tabloid press. Can you provide some specific examples of inaccurate reporting by bloggers that you believe might substantiate this claim?

3. In 2010 I reported the Daily Mail to the Press Complaints Commission over an article in which it made a series of false claims downplaying the health risks of white asbestos. [see http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/the-lay-scientist/2010/sep/27/asbestos-press-watchdog-pcc]. The newspaper eventually agreed to print a correction. Can you provide an example of a similarly toxic false health claim made by a blogger?

4. Can you provide an example of a blog whose reporting is consistently less accurate than, for example, that of the Daily Mail?

5. Would the proposed kitemarking scheme apply to all organisations that publish a blog (eg. Cancer Research UK [http://scienceblog.cancerresearchuk.org/] or Topshop [http://insideout.topshop.com/]) or only to individual blogs that are deemed “political”?

6. Would the proposed kitemarking scheme apply to political blogs published by Members of Parliament – for example Nadine Dorries MP [http://blog.dorries.org/] and Tom Watson MP? [http://www.tom-watson.co.uk/]

7. Would the proposed kitemarking scheme apply to all blogs read in the UK (ie. including US-based blogs such as BoingBoing [http://boingboing.net], and the US edition of the Huffington Post [http://www.huffingtonpost.com/?country=US]) or only to blogs written by people living in the UK?

8. Would the proposed kitemarking scheme apply to publicly visible postings and “groups” on Facebook, and to postings on microblogging sites such as Twitter?

9. Many political blogs are highly critical of the habits and standards of commercial newspapers, including the Daily Mail, Daily Mirror, Sun and Daily Telegraph. Given that the Press Complaints Commission would receive the bulk of its funding from such sources even under the alternative arrangements you are proposing, would this not create a serious conflict of interest, undermining the credibility of any attempt by the PCC to “regulate” political bloggers?

10. Many political blogs are highly critical of the Conservative Party and its donors, and of the wider political establishment in which the three main political parties operate. Given that both you and your predecessor are Conservative members of the House of Lords, does this not also create a serious conflict of interest, and undermine the perceived neutrality and objectivity of any PCC “kitemarking” scheme for political bloggers?

I will be publishing these questions on my blog. If you are able to respond then I would be happy to include your answers in full. You would also be welcome to add a comment to the blogpost itself, which can be found at http://richardwilsonauthor.wordpress.com.

Best regards,

Richard Wilson

Written by Richard Wilson

December 19, 2011 at 7:00 am

Blogger arrested for filming council meeting: In Carmarthenshire, this is what democracy looks like

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Furious council officials call Police after blogger refuses to stop filming a public meeting

From Carmarthenshire Planning blog

…when the row commenced over the Day Club, I started filming with my phone… I was asked to leave by the Chairman and Mark James, I said that I was not doing anything wrong, it is not against the law nor even in their standing orders (rules for meetings), neither was I disturbing the meeting…

As I didn’t leave, Mr James and the Chair called the police and then adjourned the meeting… it only took ten minutes today for two police cars and four police officers to appear in the Gallery. I tried to argue my point but was then arrested in the Public Gallery for ‘breaching the peace’. I was taken outside the door, handcuffed, searched, my phone taken and marched out to the waiting police cars. I was then taken 30 miles to Llanelli police station where I remained handcuffed for another hour before being ‘processed’, and put in a cell for another two hours.

By this time I was very disorientated, worried about my young daughter who needed picking up from school, I was cold (the police had taken my jacket and shoes and socks) and distressed. Without a solicitor present, I was then threatened by three police officers who said that if I didn’t sign an ‘undertaking’ not to film/record any more meetings I would be kept in overnight

Carmarthenshire blogger Jacqui Thompson is on Twitter as @caebrwyn

Written by Richard Wilson

June 9, 2011 at 10:05 pm

UK Foreign Office “covering up its mistakes and denying access to critical documents” over Iraq

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The picture of institutionalised mendacity presented by Carne Ross in today’s Observer is shocking – yet consistent both with my own personal experiences of the Foreign Office over the years – and the wealth of information that has emerged from other sources.

The unelected senior ranks of the civil service have more political power in their own right than is usually acknowledged. They now seem to be making the most of this in their attempt to evade accountability for their involvement in the systematic deception of the UK public (and Parliament) in the run-up to the war in Iraq.

From Carne Ross, writing in The Observer:

I testified last week to the Chilcot inquiry. My experience demonstrates an emerging and dangerous problem with the process. This is not so much a problem with Sir John Chilcot and his panel, but rather with the government bureaucracy – Britain’s own “deep state” – that is covering up its mistakes and denying access to critical documents.

There is only one solution to this problem, and it requires decisive action.

After I was invited to testify, I was contacted by the Foreign Office, from which I had resigned after giving testimony to the Butler inquiry in 2004, to offer its support for my appearance. I asked for access to all the documents I had worked on as Britain’s Iraq “expert” at the UN Security Council, including intelligence assessments, records of discussions with the US, and the long paper trail on the WMD dossier.

Large files were sent to me to peruse at the UK mission to the UN. However, long hours spent reviewing the files revealed that most of the key documents I had asked for were not there.

In my testimony I had planned to detail how the UK government failed to consider, let alone implement, available alternatives to military action. To support this I had asked for specific records relating to the UK’s failure to deal with the so-called Syrian pipeline, through which Iraq illegally exported oil, thereby sustaining the Saddam regime. I was told that specific documents, such as the records of prime minister Tony Blair’s visit to Syria, could not be found. This is simply not plausible.

I had also asked for all the Joint Intelligence Committee assessments on Iraq, some of which I helped prepare. Of dozens of these documents, only three were provided to me – 40 minutes before I was due to appear before the Chilcot panel.

Playing by the rules, I had submitted my written testimony to Chilcot before my appearance. In the hours before my appearance, invited to visit the Foreign Office to see further documents (mostly irrelevant), an official repeatedly sought to persuade me to delete references to certain documents in my testimony.

He told me that the Cabinet Office wanted the removal of a critical reference in my evidence to a memo from a senior Foreign Office official to the foreign secretary’s special adviser, in which the official pointed out, with mandarin understatement, that the paper sent that week to the Parliamentary Labour Party dramatically – and inaccurately – altered the UK’s assessment of Iraq’s nuclear threat.

In a clear example of the exaggeration of Iraq’s military capabilities, that paper claimed that if Iraq’s programmes remained unchecked, it could develop a nuclear device within five years.

The official’s memo pointed out that this was not, in fact, the UK assessment: the UK believed that Iraq’s nuclear programme had been checked by sanctions.

The paper to the PLP was instead sent by the foreign secretary to “brief” the wider cabinet. This paper was pure overstated propaganda, filled with ludicrous statements like “one teaspoon of anthrax can kill a million people”. The paper was soon made public, as part of the campaign to create public hysteria.

The official’s memo about the PLP paper contained nothing secret. It relates to a public document, the PLP paper. Yet, of all the references in my testimony, this was the one that the Cabinet Office most wanted removed. I refused. Strikingly, this memo has never been mentioned to the inquiry, including by its author, who testified earlier this year. Neither has the author of the PLP paper been questioned, or the paper itself discussed.

I was repeatedly warned by inquiry staff not to mention any classified material during my testimony. The only problem is that almost every document I ever wrote or read in my work was classified. It was made clear to me, and to journalists attending the hearing, that if I mentioned specific documents the broadcast of my testimony would be cut off. Other forms of retribution (Official Secrets Act prosecution?) hung in the air. It was a form of subtle intimidation.

Meanwhile, my requests to see documents about the infamous Number 10 WMD dossier were ignored, including requests for letters I had written.

This experience and the inquiry’s record so far is cause for concern. It is clear from testimonies so far that most witnesses, most of whom went along with the war at the time, are offering a very one-sided account to the panel. A story is being peddled that sanctions on Iraq were collapsing and the allied policy of containment was failing. Thus, the military alternative to deal with the Iraqi threat was more or less unavoidable.

Though there is some truth to this argument, it was not what the Foreign Office, or the government as a whole, believed at the time. The true story is there to be seen in the documents. In memos, submissions to ministers and telegrams, the official view is very clear: while there was concern at the erosion of sanctions, containment had prevented Iraq from rearmament.

When invasion was promoted by Washington, the available alternative – to squeeze Saddam financially by stopping oil exports or seizing the regime’s assets, which I and some colleagues had repeatedlyadvocated, was ignored. Here the documents tell a different but equally clear and appalling story: there is not a single mention of any formal discussion, by ministers or officials, of alternatives to military action. It is hard to pinpoint a graver indictment of the government’s failure.

The oral testimonies delivered to the inquiry have not given an accurate picture of what the government really thought. Unfortunately, the panel is neither equipped, nor apparently inclined, to challenge witnesses on the contradictions of their testimonies with this documentary record. This may not be the panel’s fault: how can they know which pertinent documents exist?

In these circumstances, it is very worrying that the government machine is still trying to withhold key documents, and silence those of us with detailed knowledge of the policy history – and documents. I have been told too, from secondary sources, that members of the panel have been refused documents they have specifically requested.

There is a clear solution to these problems: break down the continued obstruction by the bureaucracy by releasing the documents – all of them. Only the most secret documents deserve continued protection, and there are very few of these. The vast majority of relevant documents relate to policy discussion inside the government before the war. Though profoundly embarrassing, there is little here that damages national security, except in the hysterical assessment of officials protecting their own reputation. Nick Clegg said a few weeks ago that almost all documents must now be released. He is right.

Carne Ross was the UK’s Iraq expert at the UN from 1997 to 2002. He now heads Independent Diplomat, a non-profit diplomatic advisory group

Written by Richard Wilson

July 25, 2010 at 3:46 pm

Free Jean-Claude Kavumbagu. Again.

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See also (from 2008): Free Jean-Claude Kavumbagu

UPDATE - I’m pleased to report that the Committee to Protect Journalists and Human Rights Watch have both put out statements condemning the arrest and calling for Jean-Claude’s release.

Burundi’s EU-bankrolled kleptocracy strikes again

I will never forget the enormous help Jean-Claude Kavumbagu gave me while I was writing my first book, Titanic Express. This is now the fifth time he has been jailed simply for telling the truth.

One of the things that seems to have particularly riled the authorities on this occasion is Jean-Claude’s claim that “our defence and security forces shine in their capacity to pillage and kill their compatriots rather than defend their country”. Unfortunately this claim is so clearly and demonstrably true that it’s difficult to imagine what the Burundi authorities think they have to gain in suppressing it…

From Agence France Presse

Burundi police arrested a journalist for alleged “treason” Saturday over an article questioning whether the security forces could deal with an attack like one that hit Uganda a week ago, an official said.

The July 11 bombings in Kampala claimed by Al Qaeda-inspired rebels killed at least 73 people watching the World Cup final in what the insurgents said was retaliation for Ugandan troops serving in Somalia, where Burundi also has soldiers participating in an African Union force.

“The police arrested the director of Netpress on a warrant issued by the prosecutor of the republic and which had as motive ‘treason’,” police Colonel David Nikiza told AFP.

Jean-Claude Kavumbagu, head of the online news outlet, was later detained at the central prison at Bujumbura, relatives and prison officials said.

“The authorities are reproaching Kavumbagu for an article that appeared on July 12 and which questioned the capacity of the Burundi defence and security forces to face an Islamist attack like that which has just hit Kampala,” a Netpress journalist told AFP on condition of anonymity.

In the article that appeared Wednesday, Netpress wrote that “since Monday morning, the anxiety has been palpable in Bujumbura for all those who have heard about what happened yesterday at Kampala because they are convinced that if these Shebab militants wanted to try something in our country, they would succeed with disconcerting ease.”

This was because “our defence and security forces shine in their capacity to pillage and kill their compatriots rather than defend their country,” it continued.

It is the fifth time that Kavumbagu, 45, has been imprisoned for his work.

Written by Richard Wilson

July 18, 2010 at 8:42 pm

Just days into her career as an MP, Caroline Lucas busts open another big UK establishment secret…

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From the website of the UK Parliament

Early Day Motion

EDM 118

TRAFIGURA AND SHIPPING HAZARDOUS WASTE TO THE IVORY COAST
27.05.2010

Lucas, Caroline

That this House, concerned that due to the start of fresh legal proceedings in the Netherlands on 14 and 17 May 2010 concerning the multinational commodities trading group Trafigura, including allegations that UK nationals and UK firms may have been involved in illegal waste shipments and a subsequent cover-up and that payments were made to truck drivers in return for favourable witness statements and given that this is not being fully reported in the United Kingdom because of the chilling effect of the UK’s libel laws, calls on the Government to launch a full inquiry into the allegations against Trafigura and to review the libel laws to ensure that this matter can be reported fully in the UK.

Written by Richard Wilson

May 28, 2010 at 12:17 pm

Independent breaks UK media silence over Trafigura trial in the Dutch courts

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With help from the newly-elected Green MP Caroline Lucas, The Independent  newspaper has taken a clear lead in the “Trafigura challenge” – the race to see which UK media outlet will be the first to report fully on the upcoming trial in the Dutch courts of the controversial oil company.

No UK newspaper or broadcaster has yet made any mention of  allegations made to Dutch prosecutors by Greenpeace – and widely featured in the Dutch media – that Trafigura and their law firm MacFarlanes sought to bribe witnesses in an earlier London court case. But the Independent has, by citing Caroline Lucas’ remarks, at least been able to reference the ongoing legal proceedings.

Under the Parliamentary Papers Act 1840, “correct copies” of any Parliamentary publication may freely be republished without fear of legal action, including, crucially, any action under the UK’s notoriously expensive and one-sided libel laws, which Trafigura has been ruthlessly exploiting.

In a message on Twitter last night, Caroline Lucas promised an “EDM [Early Day Motion] and PQs [Parliamentary Questions] to follow”, so with luck the UK press may soon have more opportunities to cover this story freely.

From The Independent

Caroline Lucas used her maiden speech to raise concerns that the British media are unable to fully report legal proceedings involving the commodities trading company Trafigura.

The Green MP pledged to use her new position in Parliament to raise the issue after legal claims were launched in the Netherlands against the company, which chartered the ship whose toxic sludge was illegally dumped in the Ivory Coast in 2006.

The Dutch-based oil trader caused outrage last year when a High Court injunction issued on its behalf had the effect of blocking coverage of parliamentary proceedings involving its activities. The “super-injunction”, obtained by the law firm Carter Ruck, was amended after it was accused of infringing the supremacy of Parliament by preventing the reporting of a question tabled by an MP. Politicians from all sides criticised the legal manoeuvre.

The law firm agreed to change the injunction and insisted there was no question that Trafigura had sought to gag the media from reporting parliamentary proceedings.

In her maiden speech to the House of Commons, Ms Lucas said she was still concerned that proceedings in foreign courts were not being reported in Britain. She said: “Last year honourable members from all sides of the House helped to shine a light on the actions of the international commodities trading group Trafigura, and the shipping of hazardous waste to the Ivory Coast.

“There was particular concern that the media in this country were being prevented from reporting the issues fully and fairly. This remains the case, for new legal actions concerning Trafigura have been launched in the Dutch courts and are being reported widely in other countries, but not here. And these are the kind of issues I would like to pursue.”

In unrelated proceedings, a court in Amsterdam is due to start hearing the trial next week of Trafigura for the alleged infringement of Dutch waste export laws relating to the Probo Koala, the chartered tanker whose waste was dumped at sites around the Ivorian city, Abidjan.

The company is accused along with the captain of the vessel, the municipal authorities in Amsterdam and a waste treatment company of breaking rules when the ship attempted to offload the waste in the Dutch city before it then departed for West Africa. The trial is expected to last five weeks.

Written by Richard Wilson

May 28, 2010 at 7:51 am

Some good news on the battle for freedom of speech in the UK – British Chiropractic Association drop “bogus” libel case against Simon Singh

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The BCA have finally dropped their vindictive and misguided attempt to use UK libel law to attack a well-respected science writer, Simon Singh. This follows a refreshingly sensible ruling from the Court of Appeal in which the judges made it clear that the libel courts were no place for trying to settle a scientific debate.

If we’re lucky, this could help to deter at least the most extreme abuses by cranks, quacks, and peddlers of corporate pseudo-science who seek to silence their critics through threats of legal action.

Simon Singh has done a huge service to the many British writers and bloggers who have been threatened by quacks and charlatans – and also to the British wider public, who depend on the freedom of the press (including scientific journals) to ensure that bogus and flawed medical claims are properly scrutinised.

Written by Richard Wilson

April 15, 2010 at 9:32 am

Posted in Don't Get Fooled Again

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Trafigura vindicated? 115-page “Reply” which the company says rebuts the BBC’s case

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Trafigura’s Reply to the BBC’s libel Defence(PDF)

A few weeks ago Wikileaks published the 40-page court document in which the BBC laid out its defence against Trafigura’s libel claim, following this Newsnight report from May last year.

Trafigura had always insisted that the available scientific evidence vindicated them of blame for any deaths or serious injuries following the August 2006 Probo Koala toxic waste incident, and in December the BBC controversially withdrew their claims and agreed to pay damages. Yet Trafigura have never published the evidence which they say vindicates them, despite repeated requests.

Following the publication of the BBC document by Wikileaks, the blogger Calum Carr again contacted Trafigura to request their side of the story, but again to no avail.

Calum and I have now obtained this document ourselves. Given today’s very promising news about the libel reform campaign, we felt that this was a good moment to put the information out into the public domain, so that people can form their own view on this contentious issue.

Obtaining an electronic copy of this document has been an interesting process in itself. To do this, I had to:

1. Go to the High Court in person

2. Make a formal request for a copy of the document (giving full personal details including my home address)

3. Wait several days

4. Phone the High Court to see if the copy was ready

5. Visit the High Court again in person

6. Pay a not-insignificant photocopying fee

7. Pick up the paper copy of the document

8. Take the copy to a specialist document scanning company to get it turned into a PDF

9. Pay another fee

10. Wait another few days, before receiving the PDF via email.

This is apparently standard procedure for getting hold of key UK court documents. One would almost have thought that the legal authorities did not actually want the British public to have ready access to documents which are, at least in theory, available to all of us by right…

We might compare the above process to the mechanism involved in, say, accessing the text of a Parliamentary Question or a Select Committee report, eg:

1. Visit the Parliament website

2. Type in a relevant search term

2. Download the information (for free).

For all the concerns we might have about the current workings of the Parliament, its processes currently seem a whole lot more open transparent than those of the judiciary. Apart from anything else, the requirement that one has to visit the High Court in person to access a public document seems inherently discriminatory to anyone living a significant distance from London.

If and when we get some real progress on libel reform, it seems to me that opening up the judiciary to at least the same levels of scrutiny we have for Parliament could be an important next step.

Written by Richard Wilson

March 23, 2010 at 8:00 pm

MP second jobs controversy: What the voters of Banbury need to know about Tony Baldry MP…

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*Help defend freedom of speech in the UK – sign the petition for libel reform*

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a blog post about Tony Baldry, the MP for Banbury, in which I referred to some rather surprising allegations that have been made about him by a grassroots anti-corruption group, the Nigerian Liberty Forum. I had been prompted to look into the issue after I read that the Independent had withdrawn an article about it, following libel threats from Tony Baldry.

A few days later, I myself was contacted by Baldry’s lawyers, Olswang, who claimed that my blog post was defamatory, and copied me on a letter that they had sent to my webhosts, WordPress, threatening to sue them for libel, and demanding that the entire post be taken down. In their email to me, Olswang also stated that “we will advise our client to take all necessary steps to protect his reputation should there be any repetition of these allegations”, which I took to be a threat of libel against me.

(Readers can make up their own minds about the degree to which the Olswang letter accurately reflects what I wrote. The original version of the blogpost is available here.)

What surprises me most about this was that, to the best of my knowledge, Tony Baldry has not made any threats of libel against my original source, The Nigerian Liberty Forum. Their allegations and are still freely available all over the internet, and their criticisms arguably far more detailed and damning.

The dispute centres around a letter that Tony Baldry wrote to the British government in September last year, in which he discussed a UK corruption investigation into James Ibori, the former governor of Nigeria’s oil-rich Delta State region, alongside a number of his associates. Tony Baldry (through his lawyers, Olswang) has been at pains to make it clear that he wrote this letter in his capacity as a barrister (one of his second jobs outside of Parliament), and that in writing this letter he was not seeking to get the criminal investigation shelved:

1. The letter was written on the notepaper of 1 Essex Court, and it states clearly that Mr Baldry has been instructed by solicitors to represent James Ibori. The letter was clearly written in Mr Baldry’s capacity as Counsel for Mr Ibori, not as an MP.

2. There is no suggestion anywhere in the letter that Mr Baldry is seeking any course of action which would benefit Mr Ibori. The letter specifically summarises its purpose by saying that perhaps after the outcome of the criminal proceedings is known, relevant agencies might want to reflect on lessons learned.

The Nigerian Liberty Forum has argued, and I agree, that the quickest and easiest way of clarifying this issue to everyone’s satisfaction would be for Mr Baldry – or the UK government – to publish the disputed letter in full.

Unfortunately, the Foreign Office has refused a Freedom of Information Act request from the NLF. Given the lack of resources allocated by the government to the Information Commission for FOI appeals, it also seems likely that the decision will not be reviewed for many months – if not years.

So we’re left wondering what exactly what was in that letter, and what the purpose of writing it really was.

The decision to take down my original blog post was made by me. I didn’t think it was fair that WordPress were getting threatened over something that was my responsibility. While I knew that Tony Baldry was insistent that he had written his September 2009 letter in his capacity as a barrister rather than an MP, and I had made that quite clear in the article, I hadn’t actually been aware that Tony Baldry disputed the purpose of that letter as it had been described by the Nigerian Liberty Forum. And it seemed somewhat futile to get into a dispute with the author of a letter I hadn’t seen, over that letter’s contents – especially as I had merely been referring to what others had alleged, rather than making that allegation myself.

I also figured that once I’d had the chance to look into it in depth I could always return to the issue again.

My point in that original blog post – as it is now – was really that even if we take only the facts about this story that are not contested, it seems to raise some worrying questions.

1. Potential conflicts of interest

Firstly, it seems to me very surprising that our Parliamentary system should allow MPs to hold a second job which involves a) acting on behalf of people who are under criminal investigation (perhaps especially when this involves allegations of large-scale corruption) by the UK courts over which Parliament ultimately has sovereignty and b) making representations on behalf of such people to the same government ministers they face daily on the floor of House of Commons in their capacity as an MP.

The potential for such an arrangement to create conflicts of interest seems very clear, and quite worrying. Even in the terms that Tony Baldry himself has described it, I believe that this case does not look good, and I doubt that it will look good to many outside of the “Westminster bubble”. If this is what the rules allow then it seems to me that those rules urgently need to be changed.

2. Transparency and accountability

Secondly, an effective democracy depends on our being able to scrutinise the activities of our elected representatives. Yet we are unable to do that fully in this case, because the letter that Tony Baldry wrote to the UK government is protected from FOI disclosure. As I believe the “exemptions” listed here make clear, one of the main reasons for this is precisely because he wrote it confidentially in his capacity as a barrister acting on behalf of a client.

(As it happens, it appears that the letter only came to light in the first place because its existence was leaked to the Nigerian Liberty Forum – had this not happened, then we and the voters of Banbury would presumably have never have even heard about this issue).

The Nigerian Liberty Forum have also alleged – and it should be clear here that I am referring to an allegation rather than endorsing it – that just days before writing his September 2009 letter to the UK government about James Ibori, Tony Baldry had met with the Nigerian President, and discussed the Ibori case with him.

Again, my point here is not to suggest that Tony Baldry broke any Parliamentary rules. My point is rather that  it’s very difficult for us to scrutinise what, in practice, those rules are allowing, and form our own judgements about whether we agree that this is reasonable and appropriate behaviour for our elected representatives.

One analogy might be the controversy around MPs’ expenses. Parliament had published the broad rules guiding what MPs were, and were not, allowed to claim, and these seemed reasonable enough to many. Yet it was only when the specific details emerged of what, exactly, had been allowed under those rules, that we got a really meaningful picture of what had been going on. And at that point many of us came to the conclusion that the rules were not appropriate, and needed changing.

It seems to me that the more “second jobs” that an MP holds, the harder it is going to be to scrutinise their external activities, and satisfy ourselves that those activities are appropriate, whether or not they are “within the rules” that Parliament writes for itself.

Tony Baldry’s external activities are listed by They Work For You as follows:

1. Remunerated directorships

Chairman (non-executive), Westminster Oil Limited; a BVI registered company, development of oil licences and exploration.

West African Investments Ltd; investing in infrastructure and natural resource projects in Sierra Leone and elsewhere in West Africa.

Halcyon Oil Limited; a Hong Kong registered company focusing on oil exploration and discovery projects in Central Asia.

Mastermailer Holdings plc; development of stationery and stationery products. I am a non-executive director, and my duties involve attending board meetings…

2. Remunerated employment, office, profession etc

Practising barrister, arbitrator and mediator…

Executive Partner in Diamond Film Partnership; a UK partnership promoting UK film and television production rights.

Chairman of the Advisory Committee of Curve Capital Ventures Ltd, c/o Apex Fund Services (Mauritius) Ltd, Suite 2005, Level 2, Alexander House, 35 Cyber City, Evene, Mauritius; a sector neutral investment company that predominantly invests in India, China and Africa and advises companies on strategic growth and global expansion.

The Oxford Mail reports that since last July alone, Tony Baldry has earned more than £111,000 from his external interests – significantly more than his £64,766 MP’s annual salary.

3. Why was the letter written?

Thirdly, I remain very confused about why Tony-Baldry-the-barrister would have written this controversial letter to the UK government in the first place.

The lawyer and journalist Allen Green had these thoughts on that issue in this week’s excellent article in the Lawyer:

The other aspect of the Independent on Sunday apology which intrigued me was the notion of a barrister – especially in a matter where solicitors are instructed – writing a letter.

I have never before come across it.

Settling draft letters to go out under the letterhead of the instructing solicitor or the client is common.  Indeed it is sensible if one takes litigation seriously, not least as it prevents the barrister from blaming the solicitor for screwing up pre-action correspondence.

But a barrister sending a letter under their own name?  Whilst there is nothing at all wrong with this, it must be unusual.  In my experience it sometimes difficult to get barrister to even sign the pleadings they are supposed to put their name to.

So Allen Green wrote to Tony Baldry and asked him:

Why did you write the letter on behalf of the client when solicitors were instructed?

(It is highly unusual for barristers to write any correspondence in their own name (rather than pleadings), especially when solicitors are instructed.)

But the only answer to this that Tony Baldry gave was:

The letter was written in my capacity as a Barrister, instructed by solicitors.

Tony Baldry states that in writing the letter he was not seeking to secure any “benefit” for James Ibori. We can take this at face value, yet still be confused about why a barrister would be employed to act in behalf of a client towards a particular purpose (eg. in this case writing to the UK government) if that purpose held no benefit at all for the client.

The picture gets even more confusing when we look at the reasons reportedly given by the UK government for refusing to disclose the letter following a Freedom of Information Act request. These include an exemption under Section 27(1)(a) of the Act, which “allows us to withhold information if its disclosure would or would be likely to prejudice relations between the United Kingdom and another state.”

What could possibly have been in that letter – which we’ve been told was written by a barrister acting solely in his capacity as a barrister on behalf of a client in a criminal investigation – that would have such wide-ranging political implications as to risk undermining international relations were it to be disclosed?

4. Libel should not be used to suppress political scrutiny and debate

Fourthly, it seems to me extremely worrying that an elected MP should be so quick to respond to public criticism by threatening to sue newspapers and web-publishers for libel. Tony Baldry is by no means alone in this. One of the reasons I became interested in this issue in the first place is that I’ve begun to lose count of the number of times an MP or Lord has used our notoriously draconian libel laws to try to get a news article censored.

Among the worst offenders was Michael Martin MP during his time as Speaker of the House of Commons. Martin’s multiple failures during the expenses scandal ultimately brought about his downfall (though he still got to sit in the House of Lords, where he has continued to do damage). But for a long time he had great success in using libel threats to get critical media coverage withdrawn.

These people are public figures whose actions in office can impact on us all. There is a clear public interest in being able to scrutinise and question their behaviour, freely and without intimidation. As public servants, it seems to me that our politicians therefore have a duty actively to support robust and open debate, and to avoid doing anything which might deter critical scrutiny.

Yet we have somehow got used to the idea that our MPs can routinely resort to heavy-handed legal tactics at the slightest of provocations. This week it was revealed that the Respect MP George Galloway was suing over a critical comment left on a blog. Regardless of the objectionable nature of the comment (and I’m no great fan of the website in question) this decision – and in particular the scale of damages being demanded -  seems quite extraordinary. I hope that George Galloway, who interviewed me on his radio show (in his capacity as a radio presenter, not an MP, I hasten to add) when Don’t Get Fooled Again was first published, will soon realise how bad this looks to the neutral observer and reconsider what he’s doing.

There is now a palpable reluctance in large sections of the media to ask critical questions about our politicians’ behaviour, and the rules by which they govern themselves. It strikes me that this is very bad for our democracy.  I think that our elected representatives need to develop a thicker skin, and we need to start being more critical when MPs make inappropriate libel threats.

I am genuinely amazed that Tony Baldry chose to address this controversy by threatening to sue my webhosts. I do not believe it reflects well on him that he chose to do so, especially as the airing of similar allegations in stronger terms elsewhere appears to have gone unchallenged.

Neither does it look good, as Allen Green has noted, that Tony Baldry demanded the removal not only of the comments he deemed inaccurate and defamatory, but the entire blogpost.

I have no desire to say anything about Tony Baldry which is untrue or unfair, and am happy to take corrections when necessary. But on the basis of the evidence I have seen, I do believe that there are serious questions that need to be asked about this case, and that asking those questions is manifestly in the public interest.

Written by Richard Wilson

March 20, 2010 at 4:18 pm

Anonymous censor attacks Tony Baldry MP’s wikipedia entry…

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Unnecessary censorship…

This amused me…

Now why would someone want to go and repeatedly remove well-sourced, yet embarrassing, pieces of information from an elected MP’s wikipedia entry, claiming, falsely, that they were “inaccuracies”?

And why would someone create a wikipedia account which they then use solely for that purpose, and none other?

It’s almost as if whoever’s behind this doesn’t want the voters of Banbury to be properly informed about the more “controversial” activities of their democratic representative…

Written by Richard Wilson

March 19, 2010 at 9:54 pm

Tony Baldry MP: The questions that refuse to go away…

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Elegant stuff from Jack of Kent writing in The Lawyer

The Capacities of Tony Baldry, a Barrister and MP

Our tale begins on 28 February 2010, where the Independent on Sunday published the following apology to Tony Baldry, a barrister and also a Conservative MP:

“In our article “Tory MP accused over links to Nigerian politician” 14 February 2010, we reported that Tony Baldry MP had “lobbied” on behalf of a Nigerian politician James Ibori in writing a letter

to the Foreign Secretary and others and that his involvement amounted to “political lobbying”. We now accept that Mr Baldry did not lobby on behalf of Mr Ibori, the letter was written in his capacity as a barrister, instructed by solicitors, who was acting for Mr Ibori. The letter was not written in Mr Baldry’s capacity as a MP, and we accept that there was no breach of the Parliamentary rule about Lobbying for Reward or Consideration. We apologise to Mr Baldry for suggesting that he acted improperly as an MP.”

So, as E. L. Wisty said of trappings, the Independent on Sunday had clearly got hold of the wrong load of capacities…

[Read the rest of this article at The Lawyer]

Written by Richard Wilson

March 18, 2010 at 11:25 am

Tory paymaster uses dodgy UK libel laws to censor BBC documentary scrutinising his affairs

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If they’re this repressive in opposition, what will they be like in government?

Exploiting a draconian law to suppress political debate in the run up to an election? I think this takes us into banana republic territory. Burundi’s Pierre Nkurunziza would be impressed…

From The Independent

The BBC has shelved a Panorama documentary about the business affairs of the Tory billionaire Lord Ashcroft, because of a threat of legal action.

The Corporation has received what one insider described as “several very heavy letters” from Lord Ashcroft’s lawyers. There is now little or no prospect of the investigation being broadcast before the general election, if it goes out at all.

The hold-up will delight David Cameron’s campaign team, who had been trying to pressure the BBC into delaying the programme until after the general election. But sources inside the Corporation firmly deny that political pressure played a part in keeping the programme off the air, attributing the delay solely to the risk of legal action.

The Tories are anxious to suppress more publicity about Lord Ashcroft’s affairs after the outcry earlier this month when the Tory billionaire belatedly revealed that he is not domiciled in the UK for tax purposes, and so pays no tax on his huge overseas assets.

Written by Richard Wilson

March 18, 2010 at 7:09 am

And the industry lobbying campaign against libel cost reform plans is led by… the BCA’s lawyers, Collyer Bristow. But who are “Lawyers for Media Standards”?

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*Help defend freedom of speech in the UK – sign the petition for libel reform*

Who’s for a flashmob?

Earlier this month, Justice Secretary Jack Straw confirmed plans to tackle the notoriously high costs of defending a UK libel case by slashing the “success fees” that law firms can charge when prosecuting an alleged libel on a no win, no fee basis.

The Press Gazette yesterday reported that, in response:

A newly formed group, Lawyers for Media Standards, is threatening to seek judicial review over Justice Secretary Jack Straw’s plan to cut the maximum success fee which lawyers working on Conditional Fee Agreements cases can charge.

The group has demanded that Straw drops his plan to reduce success fees by ninety per cent in so-called no-win, no-fee cases and re-open the consultation which preceded his announcement.

Lawyers for Media Standards outlined the threat in a letter sent to Straw, earlier this month, by law firm Collyer Bristow.

It’s worth noting at this point that defending a UK libel case currently costs 140-times the European average, and that as a result defendants who lack the financial means to cover these costs are effectively denied their right to a fair trial.

The one case above all that has galvanised public opinion on this issue is that of  Simon Singh, the author being sued by the British Chiropractic Association over criticisms he made about their scientific claims.  Where many would backed down long ago, Simon Singh has refused to retract his comments because he believes them to be fair and true, and has already paid an enormous price as a result.

And it just so happens that Collyer Bristow, the law firm heading the libel industry’s counter-attack against efforts to reign in their exorbitant fees, is the self-same law firm that is representing the British Chiropractic Association in their controversial and much criticised case against Simon Singh.

But what else do we know about “Lawyers for Media Standards” (LMS)? Well, the naming convention certainly seems familiar to anyone who’s looked into the murkier dealings of the PR industry (remember “Swiftboat Veterans for Truth”, and “Citizens for a Free Kuwait”?).

According to Collyer Bristow, LMS is “an incorporated body whose members include a number of lawyers who represent both claimants and defendants in defamation cases with the benefit of Conditional Fee Agreements”.

According to the Law Gazette, the organisation “aims to influence the debate on libel reform by emphasising the rights to obtain redress of those damaged by the media”.

And according to the London School of Economics, the organisation was behind a recent academic report which described itself as “A Rejoinder to the Clamour for Reform of Defamation”, and warned that proposals for reform could spell the “death of libel” and “truly unleash a feral beast” if enacted wholesale.

When I looked up “Lawyers for Media Standards” on the Companies House website, I couldn’t find any company matching that name, but there is an intriguing entry for an organisation called “Lawyers for Media Rights”, which was formally incorporated just over a week ago, on the 10th of March 2010.

The address given is: 50-52 CHANCERY LANE, LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM WC2A 1HL. It just so happens that this is the same address as a law firm called Russell, Jones and Walker, whose work includes privacy and “defamation: libel and slander”.

For some reason, although this is officially public information, if you want to know more details, Companies House will charge you for them. So I had to spend £2 (and endure a somewhat cumbersome payment system), to glean the following additional information:

Lawyers for Media Rights has just one “officer”, the Director, Jeremy Clarke-Williams. It lists its objects as “to uphold the principles laid down in the European Convention of Human Rights in relation to the media, balancing freedom of expression with the right to reputation and privacy, and to protect and enhance access to justice for claimants harmed by the media”.

A Google search on “Lawyers for Media Rights” currently reveals absolutely nothing (though presumably this blog post will show up shortly). However, the top search result for “Jeremy Clarke-Williams” identifies him as Russell, Jones and Walker’s “partner in the Media, Libel and Privacy department”, where he “specialises in defamation, misuse of private information, media litigation, and reputation management” (1), and is apparently a “‘tough player and tireless adversary’”, admired for his “efficiency, swift responses and encyclopaedic knowledge”.

A search on “Lawyers for Media Standards“, reveals that Jeremy Clarke-Williams’ colleague at RJW, Sarah Webb, is a “founding member”. Other members reportedly include Jonathan Coad of media law firm Swan Turton and Dominic Crossley of Collyer Bristow.

The precise relationship between Lawyers for Media Standards and Lawyers for Media Rights seems unclear. But from the links between them, and the fact that they seem to be covering similar ground, I would guess that they might be quite closely related.

Interestingly, in 2005, Jeremy Clarke-Williams was quoted in a BBC article after a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights that the “McLibel two”, Helen Steel and David Morris, had been denied their right to a fair trial when they were refused legal aid in defending a libel case brought against them by McDonalds.

Clarke-Williams reportedly told the BBC it was unlikely the government would need to change the law in the light of the court’s ruling, because the cutback in legal aid and emergence of “no win no fee” agreements had largely plugged the hole in provision which led to the European Court action.

I suspect that many who’ve read the excellent report on libel abuse by the Libel Reform campaign would beg to differ. There’s obviously a great deal at stake here, and those who make money out of libel cases are presumably entitled to engage in political campaigning if they want to. But so too are we. Anyone for a flash mob?

*UPDATE* - Libel industry lobbyists have sought to characterise the Libel Reform campaign as driven primarily by the self-interest of big media groups. In fact it was initiated by two long-standing human rights organisations, Index on Censorship and English PEN, along with the skeptical campaigners Sense About Science, and enjoys broad support across civil society. Here’s the ferocious anti-corruption group Global Witness explaining why, in the context of libel, “no win no fee” agreements pose such a threat to its work.

(1) I should say, for the sake of clarity, that I take the above to mean that Jeremy Clarke-Williams specialises in taking action against defamation and misuse of private information, as opposed to any other meaning that might mistakenly be inferred…

Written by Richard Wilson

March 16, 2010 at 10:56 pm

Wikileaks publish BBC’s 39-page defence against the Trafigura libel suit

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From Wikileaks (pdf):

This document was submitted to the UK’s High Court by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) in September 2009, as a Defence against a libel claim brought against them by the oil company Trafigura. A May 2009 BBC Newsnight feature suggested that 16 deaths and many other injuries were caused by the dumping in the Ivory Coast of a large quantity of toxic waste originating with Trafigura. A September 2009 UN report into the matter stated that 108,000 people were driven to seek medical attention.

This Defence, which has never been previously published online, outlines in detail the evidence which the BBC believed justified its coverage. In December 2009 the BBC settled out of court amid reports that fighting the case could have cost as much as 3 million pounds. The BBC removed its original Newsnight footage and associated articles from its on-line archives. The detailed claims contained in this document were never aired publicly, and never had a chance to be tested in court.

Commenting on the BBC’s climbdown, 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.”

Now that this document is in the public domain, the global public will be able to make their own judgement about the strength of the BBC’s case.

Written by Richard Wilson

March 16, 2010 at 7:31 am

New statement from Amnesty: “There were 15 reported deaths”

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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…

From Amnesty International

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.

Written by Richard Wilson

December 19, 2009 at 9:21 am

Index and PEN condemn BBC climbdown

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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.”

Read here

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.”

Written by Richard Wilson

December 17, 2009 at 3:24 pm

Posted in Don't Get Fooled Again

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Poll: Should the BBC cut senior executive pay to free up cash for a Public Interest Libel Defence Fund?

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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.

So is it time to cut the BBC Directors’ pay in order to free up funds to defend its public interest reporting? YOU decide…

Written by Richard Wilson

December 17, 2009 at 9:13 am

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Support the Carter-Ruck Christmas Stamp Appeal!

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Help us ensure that more BBC investigations get quietly shelved!

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.

Written by Richard Wilson

December 17, 2009 at 1:07 am

Calling all bloggers – Help beat the gag on the BBC

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You can help beat Trafigura’s gag on the BBC by embedding this Youtube video on your website…

…and linking to this pdf!

Here’s why…

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.

To help subvert this latest attempt to muzzle the press, please embed this video on your blog, and link to this PDF of the original story.

Written by Richard Wilson

December 14, 2009 at 11:16 pm

Posted in Don't Get Fooled Again

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