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Guardian gagged over Commons question

Bloggers, Twitter roar as paper silenced

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Updated The Guardian newspaper was yesterday prevented from reporting parliamentary proceedings, after legal action apparently trumped the media's right to report on the House of Commons.

According to the Guardian, yesterday: "Today's published Commons order papers contain a question to be answered by a minister later this week. The Guardian is prevented from identifying the MP who has asked the question, what the question is, which minister might answer it, or where the question is to be found.

"The Guardian is also forbidden from telling its readers why the paper is prevented, for the first time in memory, from reporting parliament. Legal obstacles, which cannot be identified, involve proceedings, which cannot be mentioned, on behalf of a client who must remain secret.

"The only fact the Guardian can report is that the case involves the London solicitors Carter-Ruck, who specialise in suing the media for clients, who include individuals or global corporations."

While the Guardian was sticking very firmly to the letter of its gagging order yesterday, not so the blogosphere.

In the absence of firm information to the contrary, sharp-eyed political blogger Guido Fawkes - with a claimed regular online readership of over 100,000 - speculated aloud as to whether the question might have been one put by Paul Farrelly, MP for Newcastle-under-Lyme, to the Secretary of State for Justice, Jack Straw.

According to Hansard, an oral answer from the Justice Department is due on Wednesday, to Paul Farrelly MP.

The question is:

To ask the Secretary of State for Justice, what assessment he has made of the effectiveness of legislation to protect (a) whistleblowers and (b) press freedom following the injunctions obtained in the High Court by (i) Barclays and Freshfields solicitors on 19 March 2009 on the publication of internal Barclays reports documenting alleged tax avoidance schemes and (ii) Trafigura and Carter-Ruck solicitors on 11 September 2009 on the publication of the Minton report on the alleged dumping of toxic waste in the Ivory Coast, commissioned by Trafigura.

Other bloggers have followed Guido's lead. Iain Dale, famous as one of the most influential Tory bloggers on the net, has guessed at the same issue.

In an appeal for common sense, and quoting from New Left Dale writes: "His (Guido's) guess, and your guess, are certainly as good as or better than mine. But barking randomly up various trees has its limits.

"So I would be rather heavily in favour of The Guardian getting the provisions of the 1688 Bill of Rights back in place so we might also find out the news of what our Parliamentary representatives are discussing on our behalf."

He ends with a call to arms that may be profoundly worrying for whoever was responsible for the gagging order: "Perhaps other bloggers might care to highlight this subject on their own blogs."

Reports of parliamentary proceedings are covered by qualified privilege, which gives the media a defence against defamation proceedings. MPs are covered by absolute privilege.

Certainly, it seems likely at this point in time that the effect of the apparent gagging order will be to generate worldwide high profile interest across the more politically-aware sections of the internet, over an issue that would otherwise have aroused little or no interest whatsoever. ®

Update

The Guardian is reporting on its website, here, that the gag order has been lifted, and it was indeed Paul Farrelly MP's question that it was prevented from reporting.

The Guardian said it was "due to appear at the High Court at 2pm to challenge Carter-Ruck's behaviour, when the firm dropped its claim that to report parliament would be a contempt of court."

A LibDem call for an emergency debate on the issue was apparently refused by Commons authorities. However, it seems certain that despite the dropping of the gagging order the issue will be aired in the Commons this afternoon.

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