Thanks to the ill-thought gagging order slapped on The Guardian last night, preventing the paper from reporting this, even the dogs in the street now know what question Newcastle-U-Lyme MP, Paul Farrelly, will be asking in the commons this Wednesday about the oil and energy trading firm Trafigura. What happened today will have media litigators and libel specialists worried.
When you're a company with something of a checkered history you might not want your involvement with the dumping of toxic waste off the Ivory Coast appearing in a mass circulation newspaper. Hence Trafigura employing libel specialists Carter-Ruck to prevent The Graun following up their original story by reporting on Farrelly's parliamentary question.
Once bloggers (The Third Estate and Guido to name but two) got wind of the gagging order they turned to Wednesday's order book of parliamentary questions and simply blogged what they found there. This broke on Twitter last night and by this morning, the incredulity toward Carter-Ruck's and Trafigura's attempts to crap all over democratic process and cover up a ghastly crime off the West African coast had spectacularly backfired. Hundreds of thousands of people who wouldn't have heard of Trafigura otherwise read about the injunction on blogs and tweets and in turn retweeted them. One can only imagine the involuntary bowel movements at Carter-Ruck's offices. After lunch time it had become a joke and The Graun got the gag lifted. I wonder if Trafigura will be asking for a refund?
But does this mean the mainstream media is dying on its feet, as some bloggers like Tory Bear claim? Not really. No blog or alliance of bloggers would have been able to uncover the Trafigura/Ivory Coast story in the first place. A rare few might make a pretty penny from Google AdSense but it's hardly enough to finance the necessary field work and follow up. It still remains that with very few exceptions, when it comes to news reporting blogging is parasitical on the mainstream media.
Carter-Ruck and Trafigura were forced to back down because their injunction was about media management and perception. Their chosen battleground was always vulnerable to subversion because the internet cannot be gagged. As soon as something is let loose it can never be chased down, as last year's release of the BNP's membership list demonstrated. But outside of medialand, the impact Twitter can have on "real world" political processes has so far proven marginal. The use of it by activists in Iran and, to a lesser extent, Honduras, acutely embarrassed the respective regimes and mobilised a diffuse international sympathy that helped keep the protests and actions in the public eye. But that is all. Likewise, remember Tory MEP Daniel Hannan running around the States this summer badmouthing the NHS? It was a total PR disaster for David Cameron as #welovethenhs attracted angry responses from Twitter users pissed off with his antics and those of the American hard right. There were bad headlines and Tory MPs scrambled to assure voters the NHS was safe in their hands. And yet the polls didn't move. Nothing really changed. And of course, sadly, the BNP remain very much with us.
Twitter and blogging have shown they can force certain items onto the news agenda. But by themselves they will not shape the consequences of bringing them to wider public scrutiny. That still depends on good old-fashioned political struggle for progressive outcomes.