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Parliamentary question ban lifted

By Channel 4 News

Updated on 13 October 2009

Legal restrictions preventing the Guardian from reporting a question in parliament have been lifted after the newspaper described them as "Kafkaesque" and a threat to media freedom. Cathy Newman reports.

Parliament (Credit: Reuters)

The paper had been prevented from revealing that the Labour MP Paul Farrelly had put down a question to the Justice Secretary Jack Straw about an injunction obtained by Trafigura, an oil trading company.

But the restrictions were lifted after the question appeared on the parliamentary website and was rapidly spread via Twitter.

Lawyers at Carter-Ruck had tried to prevent the Guardian revealing that a Labour MP had tabled a question relating to oil trading firm Trafigura and Ivory Coast toxic waste.

Paul Farrelly asked about an injunction stopping the publication of the Minton report into the waste issue.

The Guardian's editor, Alan Rusbridger, today paid tribute to social networking site Twitter for building momentum for publication of the question.

Jon Snow talked to Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger and asked him what had happened after the publication of this morning's paper.  

He told Channel 4 News: "The blogosphere went berserk about a story that we published on our front page this morning, in which we said we can’t report a story for reasons we can’t tell you.

"After which there was about 16 hours of mayhem out there in the Twitter-sphere; and about an hour before we were due in court we received a letter from the lawyers saying 'we give in'.

"What has changed was that for the past six weeks we have been faced with an injunction – a so-called super injunction – which not only meant not only could we not tell anyone we had been injuncted, but that we could not mention the company involved either – I think this is a very dangerous phase in English law."

Despite Farrelly's question being on yesterday's Commons order paper and on the Parliamentary website, the Guardian reported this morning that it had been barred from detailing who the MP was, which minister would answer the question, where it might be found or even why the gagging order was in place.

MPs had earlier called for an emergency Commons debate on the matter amid outrage at Westminster over an apparent threat to Parliamentary privilege.

The question tabled by Mr Farrelly for answer by Justice Secretary Jack Straw asked "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".

Paul Staines, who runs the Guido Fawkes political blog, told Channel 4 News: "It's another victory. It was a lot of fun for a lot of people on Twitter who thought they were involved in righting a wrong. But it would probably have been overturned this afternoon in any event.

"But technology always enhances freedom. It's more difficult for those that want to restrict to do so.

"For example, it is quite difficult to injunct me – the server is in America, the publisher is in the Caymans; and I'm neither here nor there. People do try and we fight it. But when there are so many bloggers how do you injunct them all?"

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