Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Twitter vs Trafigura

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.


Owen said...

Damn. This is pretty much the follow-up post I was thinking of writing, only better. I agree entirely.

Mil said...

I think the relationship is even more complex and potentially beneficial than you indicate. Symbiotic rather than parasitical - as you point out, mainstream media can do things we can't afford to but we can afford ourselves the luxury of saying things mainstream media sometimes is unable to. So, in the end, we are complementary.

More words out there means more freedoms expressed and defended. The future looks promising.

Phil BC said...

Parasitic's certainly the wrong word! You're quite right. I've written plenty about blogging and tweeting and they are potentially useful avenues for politicos and activists - but they are an adjunct to politics (and "hard" news).

Mil said...

Hard news is expensive - that's the real problem and the real reason so much of mainstream journalism regurgitates what people say rather than allows us to understand what they do. I think we still need the *good* mainstream journalism for the hard news though (what little there is of it left, anyway) - but incidents like Trafigura will perhaps encourage the mainstream communication channels to be a little more generous and publicly able to recognise the contribution non-professional outlets will begin to make to the final result.

Phil BC said...


The kind of 'hard' news bloggers tend to be able to deliver are of the very local kind (see Stoke's own Pits 'n' Pots) or very niche - like the stuff I occasionally write about after attending demos, events, lefty things etc. Journos - at least the better ones - recognise this and try and build decent working relationships with these bloggers.

Of course after today I'm sure even more in the media and/or politics are looking for ways of manipulating twitter to progress their agendas. I'm confident though that that's next to impossible.

Kit said...

Sorry if it is a bit troll-like to fisk you but...

"even the dogs in the street now know what question Newcastle-U-Lyme MP, Paul Farrelly, will be asking in the commons this Wednesday"

Whilst I appreciate the colourful turn of phrase, this is misleading. With the exception of two pieces in the Mail (Quentin Letts & James Slack - not exactly front-page) the story hasn't been covered at all by the Tabloids. Only 'broadsheet reading types' (which isn't many) really know about this story, most people don't. (Admittedly, this could change)

I can't help thinking that the gag was going to backfire from the get-go - Twitter & bloggers probably just managed to speed up the process a bit.

Daniel Hoffmann-Gill said...

A small but feel good win.

Malcolm Clarke said...

Proof that parliment does not understand Twitter and the viral nature of it!!

ModernityBlog said...

In the age of the Internet keeping the lid on anything is next to impossible.

That holds true for oil barons and polluters, and politicos, I was about to look at the Counterfire web site and its down, then I noticed something on SU about a rift in the SWP?

It is only a matter of time before that comes out too :)

Phil BC said...

You can fisk me if you like, Kit. But that was very gentle ;) It's just a turn of phrase really.

Mod, you're right. Remember when the SWP disciplined one of its members for merely *reporting* on their annual conference on Urban 75? Incredible. The internet is the enemy of hermetically sealed sects everywhere, and they know it.

Kit said...

That's good. By and large I agree with your assessment.

Whilst I appreciate that 'the internet' is spreading rapidly (compared to TV in the 50s, etc.), I can't help thinking that people are exaggerating its political significance.

Novelty helps Twitter stories to make the news. Politicians don't care about 'Twitter man' in the same way as they do about 'Take-a-break woman'.

As you are a Marxist and a Sociologist, I always expect a more pessimistic approach to Twitter. Then again, this might have more to do with me than you ...

Phil BC said...

I wouldn't say I'm overly optimistic about Twitter. It is a bit of fun and a very useful way of keeping up with news and what people are saying and thinking. But it won't change the world in and of itself. Its impact is limited to events that take place within the media bubble - hence why the Jan Moir outcry, but nothing remotely comparable over the more significant and despicable gay hate attacks in London.