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Democracy under attack – Carter-Ruck persuades Commons Speaker that courts *can* ban the reporting of Parliament

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Can anyone Stop the Ruck?

When, following the recent fiasco around Trafigura, I saw Carter-Ruck partner Andrew Stephenson at a Parliamentary committee meeting, he seemed utterly unrepentant.

Carter Ruck’s attempt, on behalf of Trafigura, to ban the media from reporting a question in the British Parliament, had triggered calls for the company’s Directors to be dragged to the bar of the House of Commons and formally reprimanded. Justice Minister Bridget Prentice had reiterated that the 1688/9 Bill of Rights gave the media an absolute privelege to cover the proceedings of Parliament, and that this was essential for the effective functioning of our democracy.

In seeking to explain his firm’s behaviour to the Joint Parliamentary Committee on Human Rights, Stephenson certainly appeared defensive, but he didn’t seem in the least bit sorry. He did, though, seem keen to reassure us that the injunction secured by his company on Trafigura’s behalf had been intended merely as an interim holding measure, and that the original purpose had never been to gag the reporting of Parliament.

So it seems very surprising to read in today’s Sunday Times that Stephenson appears to have gone out of his way to persuade the Commons authorities that the law does, after all, allow for the gagging of Parliamentary procedure:

In a submission to a Commons select committee, Carter-Ruck, a law firm that specialises in libel, argues that newspapers and publishers would be in contempt of court if they published parliamentary questions, answers or debates that fell under super-injunctions.

Advisers to John Bercow, the Speaker, are understood to have informed the culture, media and sport committee that Carter-Ruck’s position is correct. MPs regard the position as a serious threat to free speech and the proper functioning of democracy.

Super-injunctions — under which even reporting the existence of the injunction is banned — are increasingly being used to stop the media publishing information. MPs are now concerned that they threaten the media’s right to report what MPs can freely say in parliament, a privilege affirmed in the Parliamentary Papers Act of 1840…

At the time of the disagreement, Bridget Prentice, the justice minister, said Carter-Ruck was wrong to claim super-injunctions applied to the reporting of parliamentary proceedings.

However, in a submission to the culture committee published last week, Andrew Stephenson, a senior partner at the firm, said the minister was under a “misapprehension”.

He said that while MPs were guaranteed the right to free speech under the 1688 Bill of Rights within the House of Commons, the reporting of parliament remained subject to court orders.

The Speaker’s counsel declined to comment, but is understood to agree with Stephenson’s assessment.

Thus it appears, after all, that Parliamentary democracy is still under attack, and that Carter-Ruck may be making headway in their attempt to overturn a centuries-old democratic freedom.

What I think this demonstrates, again, is that Carter-Ruck is not just an ordinary law firm, doing what ordinary law firms do. They are actively engaged in lobbying the government to curtail our liberties in the interests of their clients. They are behaving, in other words, like a right-wing activist group.

Presumably if the goverment takes this issue seriously enough, they will table emergency legislation which makes the absolute right to report Parliament fully explicit. In the meantime, judges could ensure that any secret injuction they do grant includes a statement spelling out that the measure does not apply to the reporting of Parliament.

As I’ve argued elsewhere, there’s also a pretty clear-cut ethical case for (peaceful, legal) direct political action against Carter-Ruck. The idea that a lawyer – or indeed any other worker – should be exempted from the moral consequences of their professional choices is, in my view, a self-serving myth.

Lawyers who seek to apply an unjust law – be that the law that jailed Oscar Wilde or the laws being used today to suppress freedom of speech – don’t evade moral accountability simply by hiding behind the fact that what they’re doing is ‘legal’. I can’t help but wonder if we might have avoided some of the trouble we’re now in if more had been done to challenge unethical companies like Carter-Ruck at an earlier stage.

But lastly, there has to be a question here about practicality. However much Carter Ruck and their corporate clients might like to suppress free speech through the use of one secret injunction after another, the recent Twitter-storm around Trafigura has shown that this can sometimes be impossible in practice.

If Carter-Ruck are right and Bridget Prentice is wrong, then it seems that I may, after all, have been in contempt of court when I posted the ‘banned’ Parliamentary Question on Twitter back in October. Would I be willing to do so again? I wouldn’t rule it out. And it strikes me that now would be a good time to get a head-count of bloggers and Tweeters prepared to consider engaging in peaceful civil disobedience should Carter-Ruck – or anyone else – attempt to gag the reporting of Parliament again. You can leave a comment here or email me via richardcameronwilson AT yahoo DOT co DOT UK.

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Written by Richard Wilson

December 6, 2009 at 9:10 am