Archive for November 2009
From The Guardian
Carter Ruck’s support today for some of the changes put forward in the report came amid continuing criticism of firms that launch expensive libel claims against journalists and other publishers, often using conditional fee agreements which result in higher costs for defendants.
“If we don’t get reforms, what is there to stop a law firm like Carter Ruck bombarding journalists and suppressing information that is in the public interest for three years?” said Meirion Jones, producer at BBC’s Newsnight, which is currently being sued over its reporting of oil trading firm Trafigura.
From Skeptical Voter
NB – I should say that pretty much all the really difficult aspects of this project, including the writing of the press release below, were sorted out by the outstanding duo Craig Lucas and James O’ Malley!
Politicians to be asked for evidence of their commitment to evidence
New Skeptical Voter project hopes to hold MPs and candidates views on evidence-based policy to account
Author and campaigner Richard Wilson today launched a new campaign to hold to account the views of MPs and candidates standing at the next General Election with regard to ‘evidence-based policy’. ‘Skeptical Voter’ is an apolitical grassroots project by the ‘skeptic’ community – those who have a scientific worldview who believe that evidence should be at the centre of all public policy making. The Skeptical Voter website intends to identify which parliamentary candidates embrace the use of evidence as a means to inform their decisions and which prefer to obfuscate, ignore or suppress the evidence for political convenience.
Today sees the launch of phase one of their plan – Richard is asking for contributions to a collaborative ‘wiki’ on the website and for suggestions for questions to ask to MPs – the best of which will be put into a survey that will be sent to all 2010 General Election candidates.
Speaking about the project, Richard said, “It’s based on two principles and a hypothesis: The first principle is that everyone has a right to know where their MP stands on things like the role of scientific advisors, spending NHS cash on so-called ‘alternative’ treatments like homeopathy and the role of the libel laws in scientific discussion. The second principle is that MPs who stand on the wrong side of these issues ought to be held to account. Our hypothesis is that there are enough of us out there to make a splash if we get organised.”
Those wishing to get involved, or find out more information can go to the Skeptical Voter website at http://www.skeptical-voter.org
Yesterday I wrote about a discussion in Parliament on the use of “super-injunctions” to gag the media. It turns out that no-one anywhere is keeping track of how many of these secret gags are being issued, or whether the judges involved are scrutinising the cases properly.
But another intriguing issue that came out of the same meeting relates to the problem of “libel tourism”. Notoriously, under current UK law it’s now possible for anyone, anywhere in the world, who thinks they’ve been libelled on some website or another, to come to London and attempt to bankrupt the person responsible. Thus we have – for example – an Icelandic academic losing his home after being sued by a fellow-Icelander over things written on the University of Iceland website.
“Libel tourists” come here because it’s easy to win, even when you don’t have a case. The UK court system denies libel defendants a fair trial by effectively treating them as ‘guilty until proven innocent’, and because the legal costs of defending one’s self are up to 140 times higher than in other countries. This means that most ordinary people cannot afford adequate legal representation.
Those who really benefit from this system are, of course, law firms such as Carter Ruck, who help foreign libel tourists bring their exorbitant claims. What I wasn’t aware of until this week is that the UK taxpayer may also be helping to foot the bill. While the parties to the case pay lawyers’ fees, it was claimed during Tuesday’s meeting that the costs of actually running the court, paying the judges wages etc. comes out of the public purse. If this is true, then not only are the likes of Carter Ruck making a fortune from these questionable foreign law suits – but we are indirectly subsidising the whole process through our taxes….
“There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we now know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. These are things we do not know we don’t know.”- Donald Rumsfeld, 12 Feb 2002
On Tuesday I joined a meeting of the UK Parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights which focussed on “super-injunctions”. This is the name given to a legal order which not only bans a particular issue from being covered in the press, but also bans any reference to the ban.
It was one of these orders that had, notoriously, been used by controversial law-firm Carter Ruck, on behalf of oil-trader Trafigura, to suppress coverage of the now-famous “Minton report”, until the ban was circumvented by the online media. It was this that stirred the interest of the JCHR.
The meeting included journalists, editors, MPs, Lords and lawyers, including both the Guardian’s legal chief and two senior partners from Carter Ruck. The discussion was so wide-ranging that it would take more than one blog post to do it justice, but there were a couple of details that really stood out.
The first is that no-one knows how many secret super-injunctions are currently in force. While the UK state seems bent on meticulously recording every detail of its citizens’ phone, email and web-browsing habits, it is positively lackadaisical about tracking its own media gagging orders. Although each individual super-injunction is (we have to hope) being kept on file somewhere by the judiciary, no-one, anywhere, is collating information about the overall picture.
When asked about this issue in Parliament, the government’s response was simply that:
“The information requested is not available. The High Court collects figures on applications, however injunctions are not separately identifiable, and there are currently no plans to amend databases to do so.”
So there’s no way of knowing, on a global scale, how many of these gagging orders are being handed out, or for what sorts of purposes, or on whose behalf. It’s thus difficult to see how anyone could independently verify that the law is actually being applied fairly and proportionately. What we effectively have is a secret state whose bans on media coverage are almost entirely beyond public scrutiny.
Individual newspapers will obviously know how many injunctions they’ve each received (the Guardian has reportedly had 12 this year alone), but as they’re forbidden from discussing the details, it will be impossible for newspaper editors to build up a global picture by talking to each other.
This lack of scrutiny seemed to be a real concern for members of the Committee, and there was much discussion about how they could determine the size of the problem and address it. One point I tried to make was that there is at least one group of people who could in theory tell us quite a lot about the number of super-injunctions being issued – the law firms like Carter Ruck who are involved in securing them.
At the moment we seem to have a situation where the only people who have any idea of about the numbers, are the same people who are profiting so handsomely from the UK libel/censorship system.
The second thing that stood out for me in the meeting was a discussion around “libel tourism”. It seems that our taxes may be helping to subsidise the activities of Carter Ruck, Shillings and their ilk, in this area. But more on that next time…
Trafigura coverage still curtailed by libel abuse. UK media unable to report freely on deaths allegedly caused by dumping of Trafigura’s toxic waste
*Update* See also: Doc Richard – Trafigura suppresses scientific lecture – allegedly
*Update 2* Rebellion spreads – Caroline Lucas MEP mentions the unmentionable.
There’s renewed coverage today of the ongoing legal battles following the notorious Ivory Coast toxic waste incident, in which the oil trader Trafigura has been implicated.
The Guardian (UK), Times (UK) and New York Times (US) all report that the £30 million compensation payment by Trafigura to victims of the disaster is in danger of being misappropriated after an Ivorian court ordered that the funds be frozen.
But note also the contrast in how the UK and US media have reported the background to the story. Here’s how the New York Times covers it:
The waste was shipped by Trafigura, an international commodities trading giant. About 108,000 people sought treatment for nausea, headaches, vomiting and abdominal pains, and at least 15 died. All had apparently been poisoned by the toxic brew of gasoline and caustic soda, refining byproducts dumped by Trafigura’s contractor.
Here’s the Guardian:
Hundreds of tonnes of sulphur-contaminated toxic oil waste were cheaply dumped on landfills and in ditches around Abidjan in 2006. The cargo ship had been chartered by Trafigura. In the weeks after, the fumes caused thousands of sick people to besiege local hospitals.
…and here’s the Times:
A cargo ship chartered by Trafigura dumped hundreds of tonnes of sulphur-contaminated toxic oil waste around Abidjan in 2006. In the following weeks the fumes caused thousands of people to need hospital treatment.
The deaths of “up to 17” Ivorians has been widely reported elsewhere. In previous articles, both the Times and the Guardian have referred to a UN report citing “official estimates” of 15 dead. So it seems odd that this seemingly crucial detail should now be omitted.
The New York Times is of course free to say what it likes because freedom of speech is protected under the US constitution, and New York State has a law which specifically prohibits the enforcement of UK libel judgements in NY, due to human rights concerns.
Fortunately in the UK we do still have (despite some recent confusion) an absolute right to report the proceedings of Parliament, so I can draw your attention to this recent statement from Evan Harris MP:
My understanding is that “Newsnight” is being threatened by the lawyers for Trafigura, Carter-Ruck, if it repeats an allegation… that deaths were caused by the dumping of toxic waste in Ivory Coast, even though in 2007 Hansard reported the Transfrontier Shipment of Waste Regulations laid by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs before Parliament, and a memorandum of explanation to those regulations stated:
“The recent example of the release of toxic waste in the Ivory Coast leading to the deaths of a number of people and the hospitalisation of thousands underlines the risks involved in the movement and management of waste.”
How can it be that that can be in Hansard, yet there are still threats of legal action against “Newsnight” if it reports the very same wording that is used in there? That cannot be right.
What Dr. Harris could also have mentioned is that, astoundingly, alongside these renewed threats, Trafigura’s libel action over this damning May 2009 news report, appears still to be ongoing.
Culture Media and Sports Committee: Further written evidence from Alan Rusbridger, the Guardian
…Along with others of the European media and the BBC, we have recently been subject to what we regard as a prolonged campaign of legal harassment by Carter-Ruck on behalf of London-based oil traders, Trafigura.
Trafigura arranged the illegal dumping of 500 tons of highly toxic oil waste in the West African country of Cote d’Ivoire. Thousands of the population of Abidjan, the capital, subsequently became ill and, after a bitterly fought law suit, Trafigura has now been forced to pay a degree of compensation to the victims.
Carter-Ruck, like such other firms as Schillings, are trying to carve out for themselves a slice of the lucrative market known as ‘reputation management’. This is not about the perfectly proper job of helping people or organisations gain legal redress when they have been mistreated by the press.
It is a pitch to work with PR firms to pressurize and intimidate journalists in advance on behalf of big business. It exploits the oppressive nature and the frightening expense of British libel laws…
After the toxic waste dumping in 2006, Trafigura embarked on what was essentially a cover story. They used Carter-Ruck and PR specialists Bell Pottinger, working in concert to enforce their version on the media.
The cover story was that Trafigura used a tanker for normal ‘floating storage’ of gasoline. They had then, they claimed, discharged the routine tank-washing ‘slops’, which were harmless, to a disposal company, and had no responsibility whatever for the subsequent disaster.
In fact, Trafigura had deliberately used a primitive chemical process to make cheap contaminated gasoline more saleable, and knew the resultant toxic waste was impossible to dispose of legally in Europe.
The Guardian experienced an intimidatory approach repeatedly in the Trafigura case. Other journalists at BBC Newsnight, the Norwegian state broadcaster NRK and the Dutch newspaper Volkskrant, told us of identical threats. The BBC eventually received a libel writ. NRK were the subject of a formal complaint – eventually rejected – to the Norwegian press ethics body.
A history of Carter-Ruck’s behaviour in respect of the Guardian is appended [APPENDIX 2]
On 27 June 2008, Bell Pottinger sent a threatening message to the Guardian. They had previously sent similar threats and complaints to AP, whose agency dispatch had been published on-line by the Guardian. The message ended:
“Please note that in view of the gravity of these matters and of the allegations which have been published, I am copying Trafigura’s solicitors, Carter-Ruck, into this email.”
The letter demanded changes to the Guardian’s website to include this information:
“The Probo Koala … left Amsterdam with the full knowledge and clear approval of the Dutch authorities.” It also stated that the disposal company in Amsterdam had asked for extra fees “without any credible justification” and that “ship’s slops are commonly produced within the oil industry. To label Trafigura’s slops as ‘toxic waste’ in no way accurately reflects their true composition.”
On 16 September 2008, Trafigura posted a statement on their website claiming:
“Trafigura is in no way responsible for the sickness suffered by people in Abidjan … The discharge of slops from cargo vessels is a routine procedure that is undertaken all over the world.”
The company knew this was a misleading and false statement.
On 22 September 2008, the Guardian’s East Africa correspondent, Xan Rice, asked Trafigura some questions, in view of the then impending trial of local Ivoirian waste contractors.
Trafigura refused to answer, a refusal coupled with another pointed referral to libel solicitors. Bell Pottinger wrote: “I am copying this email to Carter-Ruck”.
Xan Rice’s article was not published by the Guardian.
The Ivoirian trial convicted local individuals for toxic dumping, Trafigura subsequently abandoned some of their lines of defence in the English litigation they originally claimed they had no duty of care, and could not have foreseen what the local dumpers might do. Trafigura now agreed instead, to pay anyone who could prove the toxic waste had made them ill. They continued to deny publicly that such a thing was possible.
Xan Rice again asked some factual questions. On 14 November 2008, Bell Pottinger responded “Please note that I am copying this correspondence to Carter-Ruck and to the Guardian’s legal department”. They added: “Any suggestion, even implicit, that Trafigura … should have stood trial in Ivory Coast would be completely unfounded and libellous … We insist that you refer in detail to the contents of the attached summary”.
They claimed to be sueing for libel the senior partner of Leigh Day who was bringing the English lawsuit. They added that further Leigh Day statements “are the subject of a complaint in Malicious Falsehood”[sic]. In fact, the libel proceedings against Martyn Day had been stayed, and no malicious falsehood proceedings had been – or were ever – issued.
A closely-typed six-page statement was attached. In it the company claimed to have “independent expert evidence” of the non-toxicity of the waste, but refused to disclose it. Trafigura repeated the false claim that the waste was merely “a mixture of gasoline, water and caustic soda”.
No Guardian article, once again, was published.
On 3 December 2008, less than 3 weeks later, Trafigura formally admitted to the High Court the true composition of the waste in its document “Likely chemical composition of the slops”, [detailed above].
On 5 December 2008, Trafigura formally admitted their waste came from Merox-style chemical processing attempts, and not from routine tank-rinsing.
On 29 April 2009, Carter-Ruck wrote to a Dutch paper: “Trafigura has been obliged to engage my firm to bring complaints against Volkskrant … It is indeed the case that we have on Trafigura’s behalf, written to a number of other media outlets around the world in respect of their coverage of this matter”. Bell Pottinger also confirmed contact with journalists who published or broadcast stories that did not accurately reflect Trafigura’s position, but added: “We completely disagree with your description of Trafigura’s involvement in an ‘aggressive media campaign’.”
On 13 May 2009, Bell Pottinger, in concert with Carter-Ruck, issued a statement to the BBC repeating two assertions known to be false.
They said the Leigh Day statement “is currently the subject of a malicious falsehood complaint made by Trafigura”. They also claimed once more: “The Probo Koala’s slops were a mixture of gasoline, water and caustic soda”.
On 13 May 2009, Carter-Ruck wrote to the Guardian demanding the paper not “publish any reference” to witness-nobbling allegations, although they know these had already been the subject of a public statement by solicitor Martyn Day; the subject of a separate disclosure published by the legal correspondent of the Times; and the subject of a publicly-available court injunction banning further witness contact by Trafigura until trial. Carter-Ruck added that “so much as a reference to these allegations” would be “wholly improper”.
On 15 May 2009, Carter-Ruck issued a press release under its own letterhead, not Trafigura’s, claiming that High Court libel proceedings had been issued against the BBC for “wildly inaccurate and libellous”, “one-sided”, “misleading”, “sensationalist and inaccurate” publications.
On 22 May 2009, Carter Ruck told the Guardian: “It is untrue that the slops caused or could have caused the numerous deaths and serious injuries … Trafigura cannot be expected to tolerate unbalanced and inaccurate reporting of this nature. Accordingly, Trafigura requires the Guardian to … remove these articles from its website forthwith; and … publish a statement by Trafigura”.
The Guardian declined to remove its articles, but agreed to publish the statement. This said: “The fact is that according to independent analyses that Trafigura has seen of the chemical composition of the slops, it is simply not possible that this material could have led to the deaths and widespread injuries alleged. Similarly, it is not possible that hydrogen sulphide was released from the slops as alleged by the Guardian. Trafigtura will present these independent analyses in the High Court in Aututmn 2009.”
On 17 September 2009, the Guardian published documents on its front page detailing a “massive cover-up” by Trafigura.
On 29 September 2009, Trafigura announced it would pay £30m to the victims, rather than face a High Court trial.