Freedom to Create Straw-Man

I had arranged to meet with my old University comrades at the weekend. We met in a pub and, of course, started talking about work, in particular any new jobs amongst us. One of the group had moved down to London fairly recently and was talking in general about the hedges made by the commodity trading company he works for. I asked him the name of the company, out of interest. He seemed to mumble into his glass. “Speak up, boy, what’s the name?” I asked, confused as to why this chirpy, loud, northerner was shrinking behind his pint.

Imagine my surprise when it turned out he works for Trafigura. Yes – THE Trafigura – child-killing, freedom-of-speech inhibiting Trafigura. After my initial shock had calmed down and I had retreated from trying to physically attack him with my umbrella, we started to talk about it as some in the group had never heard of them so a couple of us explained the situation.

This got me thinking. The Guardian, of course, have been keeping tabs for a while and a number of articles are categorised away in their own section on the website, helpfully entitled: ‘Trafigura’ which have, as far as I can tell, details on the main bulk of the situation starting May 2009.

So I wondered to myself, as I was telling the story (adding in my own adjectives, which got progressively more sweary as the night went on), after the Newcastle-under-Lyne MP Paul Farrelly asked his question in Parliament, (which us Plebians weren’t meant to know) then after twitter went crazy for the treasure hunt and spilled the beans (because the questions asked in Parliament are published ahead of time anyway and the name Carter-Ruck were given in the article), the actual Minton Report was bandied about, then the injunction was lifted after it was dropped by Carter-Ruck (one assumes at the request of Trafigura)… Then what happened, after the outrage died down?

Did I even know what Jack Straw said in answer to the question, or was my outrage enough as a standalone object? At what was my seething rage directed? Well the curtailing of our human rights, of course. Under the Bill of Rights Act 1688 no-one must inhibit the freedom to debate and speak in the Houses of Parliament.

So what happened then, in a nutshell?  The Guardian planned to report, as it had been doing since May 2009, on the on-going saga involving a company outsourced by the entity in question, Trafigura and the illegal dumping of Toxic Waste. This time, the story had been taken to Parliament and to our very own Secretary of State for Justice, Mr. Jack Straw.

Paul Farrelly: To ask the Secretary of State for Justice (1) 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; [293006]

The super-injunction was sought only 24 hours before the Parliamentary session. There is no doubt in my mind that Carter-Ruck have a team that scour the media looking for incidences of libel. They also would have known that The Guardian, especially, would not just sit there and have the whole Bill of Rights Act called into question without piping up, given its previous articles on Trafigura and their ‘situation’. I have made 2 assumptions there, but, quite probably, neither is a leap of faith.

But that made me think. Did Carter-Ruck/ Trafigura also know that their ‘super-injunction’ wouldn’t last very long? One presumes so, as they would have known about the Bill of Rights Act and the reporting of Parliamentary debate – one of the corner stones of democracy! They may have expected the injunction to last longer; they may not have expected Twitter and her real-time response to act so quickly and accurately, but respond they did. By elevensies we had the name Trafigura and The official Minton Report into the hands and onto the desktops of many. I had read all the Guardian articles I could get my hands on and anything on WikiLeaks.  So, while I went merrily on my way, asserting my right to share information online, like many others I’m sure I gained much more knowledge on the subject.  But only The Minton Report (2006) was new to broadcasting.

So what had I done? I had jumped on the straw-man bandwagon – provided (purposefully or otherwise) by Trafigura and their Carter-Ruck – of free-speech. The outrage I felt, that was reported in the media, and proclaimed on Twitter was at the blockade of freedom of speech.

This is all very well; it is outrageous. It was a bold, pugnacious move by Team Trafigura.  A move that seems to have, for now, diverted attention away from them and their disgraceful outsourcing of waste disposal and onto Carter-Ruck, who are merely agents for Trafigura and their whitewash; their spin.

Indignantly declaring our disgust that our Human Rights, the very rights that put us (we like to pretend) at the forefront of social progressivism, have been forsaken at the expense, yet again, of the Big Business. Our elected MP and, by extension, our Freedom of Speech has been bruised.

Hang on a second… wasn’t the toxic waste dumped in The Ivory Coast? Isn’t that the main issue here? We have an unrivalled tool to grant us freedom of speech – the uncensored internet – luckily for us, no one has tried to censor that (yet) and while I do think that the freedom to report Parliament, the freedom to debate in Parliament and the freedom of the rabble to discuss are incredibly important, that’s not what was at stake, surely? Building a Straw-man and knocking it down is all well and good, but let’s not lose sight of the original fight.

P.S. What’s that about Barclays and Tax Avoidance Scheme? Hmmmm…..


6 thoughts on “Freedom to Create Straw-Man

  1. It reminds me a bit of an interesting book called ‘The Society of the Spectacle‘ by Guy Debord. He’s probably not the first person to articulate the idea, but I’m not well-read enough to know who was. In a nutshell, he described a situation whereby we increasingly replace actual lived experiences with ‘images’ or ‘spectacles’ that conjure all of the right associations in our brains without actually achieving anything. Instead of interacting directly with each other to solve a problem, we interact via intermediaries if at all, in order to feel as though we’re solving the problem.

    At the time (the mid-60s), he talked about how natural leisure time was replaced with regulated ‘vacations’, replacement of lived experience with consumption of ‘aspirational’ commodities and so on. It’s not hard to put that in a modern context, where we tweet about something rather than actually do anything about it. What’s odd and seductive about the ‘spectacle’ is that we feel like we really are achieving something with our tweeting. But, as you point out, maybe the tweeting about Trafigura only had any effect because that was precisely Trafigura/Carter-Ruck’s idea all along. Maybe this assumes too much Machiavellian omnipotence on their part, but it would have been a good plan if it was intentional.

    Anyway, I suspect that Debord and the Situationists would certainly have agreed with you. The way in which our victory (or ‘twictory’ as I imagine we’re obliged to call it now) on the issue of free speech made us all feel good undoubtedly helped to assuage the anger at the original crime. I suspect that many similar displays of ‘people power’ are only allowed to ‘succeed’ because it diverts us from more serious matters.

    • Hey Rob, cheers for the comment! I’ll check out that Debord book. What you say rings very true to me – and I love ‘twistory’ hehe!

  2. Arising from the Carter-Ruck debacle, the Green Party is planning a conference of all NGOs whose work is affected by multinational corporations, in order to draft up the kind of laws that would be needed to rein in the likes of Trafigura.

    Corporations have gained a position of legal persons, with plenty of rights but precious few responsibilities, apart from maximising their profits.

    We have to change this.
    Keep up the good blogging!

    • Thanks very much for your comment, Dr Lawson.

      I have long thought that there is a gross imbalance between the power and privacy of Corporations vs. The Average Jo(sephine) (see Simon Singh and the libel case brought against him from BCA). I’m glad The Green Party are behind this!

      Keep up the good blogging right back at ya! 🙂


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