Trafigura and the Great Firewall of Westminster

Update (13/10/09 1330): The gag has been lifted.

London’s Guardian newspaper has been gagged from reporting a specific item of parliamentary business. The subject of the gagging order is thought to be a question to be asked by an elected MP of the Secretary of State for Justice:

Paul Farrelly (Newcastle-under-Lyme) – 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.

All that the Guardian can say about it is here.

The question has been written down and noted in the public record of parliamentary business and is timetabled to be “asked” in the House of Commons later this week.

The UK libel laws are byzantine and tightly drawn but one clear and simple certainty has been in place for nearly 40 years: “fair and accurate” and timely reporting of procedures in parliament are subject to absolute privilege, the highest protection against legal action possible.

This action is an entirely cynical attempt to cover up an appalling scandal involving a rich, powerful, politically well-connected and enthusiastically litigious corporation on the one hand and tens of thousands of sick poor people and major environmental damage on the other.

It’s not much of a surprise that Trafigura would attempt to prevent publication of evidence of their wrongdoing, evidence which might also show that the proof of their wrongdoing has been known to them for the last three years. For the past three years the company’s lawyers have been busy filing action after action against media organisations both here and in other European countries where legal action is being taken on behalf of Ivorian victims of the toxic dumping.

What is particularly worrying and anger-inducing about this business is that an English court granted the request for the gagging order.

Now here’s a bit of background about the information Trafigura and the company’s legal representatives do not wish to gain publicity. Cos, you know, gagging newspapers in the teeth of decades of established case law is the sort of action which invites such a public airing.

The parliamentary question concerns the oil, metals and minerals trading company Trafigura (which has close ties to the opposition Conservative party) and an inquiry into allegations that the company dumped toxic waste along the offshore waters of the Ivory Coast which then washed ashore on land in Ivory Coast capital Abidjan and affected the health of tens of thousands of Ivorians. The original story was carried in the Guardian on 14 May 2009:

Documents have emerged which detail for the first time the potentially lethal nature of toxic waste dumped by British-based oil traders in one of west Africa’s poorest countries.

More than 30,000 people from Ivory Coast claim they were affected by the ­poisonous cocktail and are currently bringing Britain’s biggest-ever group lawsuit against the company, Trafigura.

The firm chartered the ship, Probo Koala, which transported the cargo to Ivory Coast in 2006.

An official Dutch analysis of samples of the waste carried by the Probo Koala indicate that it contained approximately 2 tonnes of hydrogen sulphide, a killer gas with a characteristic smell of rotten eggs.

The documents have been obtained by the BBC. One chemist told BBC Newsnight last night that if the same quantity and mixture of chemicals had been dumped in Trafalgar Square: “You would have people being sick for several miles around … millions of people.”

Trafigura, which claims to be one of the world’s biggest independent oil ­traders, originally issued statements in 2006 denying the tanker was carrying toxic waste. It said it merely contained routine “slops” – the dirty water from tank washing. Executives of the company lined up to specifically deny that the waste contained any hydrogen sulphide.

However by mid September Trafigura suddenly announced it had reached a settlement for the 30,000+ claims of compensation in the wake of the dumping.

The fuss now appears to centre around a report by science consultancy Minton, Trehane & Davies into Trafigura’s toxic waste disposal practices. It was commissioned by commercial and shipping law specialists Waterson Hicks and there is a pdf copy (downloadable from the wikileaks entry above) dated 14 September 2006.

Should the conclusions as outlined in the pdf bear any resemblance to the content of the report then Trafigura have been copped, bang to rights, and, what is more, they’ve known about the evidence of their wrong-doing for the past three years.

Tut tut tut. Naughty Trafigura.

Post #919

So, who was I?

Hmm, difficult to recall, but it was something like award-winning international radio journalist; foreign correspondent; writer published in all the UK broadsheets (and a few tabloids for good measure); news presenter to ten million listeners; chronicler of pestilence, war, famine and death; interrogator of president and peasant; arts correspondent; habitué of Venice and Cannes, openings and premiers; interrogator of celebrity and star; someone who lived and worked – extremely hard – across three or four continents.

And now?

Three or four miles is the general circumference of my life, the reach of my being from the hub of my house, on the days when I can leave it. Nowadays that means most days, but there are still, occasionally, some when I cannot.

Yesterday I had a huge sense of achievement. I managed to post to a friend the reading glasses she had left behind after staying here at the weekend (which, in and of itself, was a pretty notable achievement, having people to stay).

And what did this require? It required the finding of a padded envelope, a pen, some cellotape and her address. It required that the glasses be inserted into the envelope, the address written on it with the pen and the flap sealed down with the cellotape. It required the parcel to be taken to the post office, weighed, a stamp purchased and affixed and the parcel deposited in the correct place for collection.

The friend left her glasses on Monday morning. I managed to post them on Wednesday afternoon.

This was not because my life was so full of activity I overlooked the task. Quite the reverse. It was the achievement of the task itself which took that long. But that was far quicker than is usual with such things, hence my huge happiness and the sense of achievement to which I have already alluded.

My life, my ability to function in the world, has utterly changed.

I am not looking for and do not require sympathy. What I would like is some effort at understanding.

What makes me extremely upset is the assumption, usually from people who are entirely well-meaning but sometimes from people who are not, that my situation is something over which I have control, a choice, something over which I only have to make a slight effort and all would be… well. “But you’re so strong…” “I’m sure if you tried…” “Surely someone like you…” It is a pernicious variant on the “pull your socks up” and “snap out of it” approach.

Let us imagine that, instead of suffering from an alteration to my mental capacity which affects my ability to operate in the world, I suffered from an alteration in my physical capacity which affects my ability to operate in the world. I could, through accident or illness, have lost my sight, for instance. Or as a result of accident or illness become paralysed from the waist down. Immediately there is a visual co-relative – the white stick, the wheelchair – which signifies the situation. Immediately there is a frame of reference within which the onlooker can make judgements and act accordingly. One would not, I presume, tell someone in a wheelchair that one was sure they could walk if they only tried. Or say to a person wielding a white stick that surely someone a strong as them really ought to be able to see, if they made the effort.

I understand that it is difficult to comprehend the disabling effect of mental ill-health without the clear visual cues provided by physical alteration. So let’s look at it from a different direction. Let’s look at the before and after. Let’s look at who I was – a person with a fantastically interesting, varied, stimulating, high-status, financially and intellectually rewarding job with a concomitant lifestyle. And who I am – unable to work, to earn money, to read a newspaper or listen to the radio, unable to do innumerable basic day-to-day activities most people take for granted, with a concomitantly impoverished lifestyle.

I am not complaining about my situation. What I have great difficulty with is the attitude that it is some sort of conscious lifestyle choice born of laziness or other character defect. That my situation merely requires moral fibre, effort or the exertion of will to overcome. That its continuation, perhaps even its very existance at all, is therefore my fault. Is it not possible to imagine the devastating frustration and shame that this situation engenders? how difficult it is to come to terms with the change?

How or why would anyone choose to lose what I have lost? How or why would anyone choose to be in a position not to be able to provide their children with most of what they want and even, on occasion, things that they need? How or why would not anyone do whatever they were capable of, fight, fight, fight to overcome such a situation?

And if they are not, by an effort of will, able to walk again, able to regain their sight, how or why should they be blamed?

Even witches had ducking stools

We interrupt what appears to be an unplanned blog writing, reading and commenting hiatus for this important message:

New Zealand's new Copyright Law presumes 'Guilt Upon Accusation' and will Cut Off Internet Connections without a trial. Join the black out protest against it!

Of course this policy does have fringe benefits, or at least to New Zealand bloggers. Should I be such a one, and, for whatever reason, be unimpressed by the cut of the jib of another, all I have to do to have their jib erased from sight is point an accusatory finger and *pow* – blackout. No questions asked. A licence to kill. Without even paying the assassin.

(Actually I’m mostly hanging out on tumblr at the moment as a by-product of Dave‘s latest babe Open Micro about which I wanted to write properly but haven’t but figure very few people read here who don’t already read him but for that highly select audience please visit and join in too if the spirit moves it’s great fun.)

(Oh and I’ve had a blog post in draft on the subject of “recovery” since hmm October last year and I spiked the dermal digest because the plugin was borked and spawned incontinently and besides there were too many dents in each egg-case.)

(Yes, I think that’s it. For the nonce.)

Pictures of people

An interesting (to me, because it confirms my (minority) prejudice) account of one person’s reaction to a picture of them taken without their permission:

She first saw the picture a few weeks after it was taken, and then periodically over the years, but never wanted to contact me. She said she hates it because she was trying to be completely dignified. And the one moment she did what she was trying to avoid – crying – was captured in this frame.

Pediculosis

I am so fucking SICK of lice. Sick sick sick sick sick SICK.

Not only do I have very long, very thick hair. I am also ALLERGIC to their FUCKING BITES.

So the children are swanning around, three weeks after returning to school, harbouring communities of the vile creatures (as it turns out) and are showing not the slightest sign of anything at all. But the moment one small insect moves into my hair and starts noshing on my scalp I come out in huge, weeping, bleeding weals that itch like FUCK. They hurt so much it wakes me up in the night.

“One of you children has LICE” I roar and lash out the nit comb and gallons of conditioner. In fact one has both lice and nits in abundance, the other mostly nits.

I change all our bedding and towels and boil wash them because old habits die hard despite the advice on the NHS page:

There is no need to wash clothing, or bedding, if they have come into contact with head lice. This is because head lice quickly die without a host to provide warmth and food.

I go to the chemist and pay vast sums of money (well vast in our circumstances) for some noxious poison, no doubt based on some deadly organophosphate and treat all of us, leave on the lotion for longer than the recommended time, go through each head with the nit comb again. “Die, bastards, die” I chant as I rake the metal teeth of the comb over every square millimeter of scalp.

The children don’t like it. But their suffering is AS NOTHING compared to the FUCKING AGONY I have to endure when undergoing this procedure. The water runs red with the blood seeping from the open sores which have been ripped by the teeth of the comb and further inflamed by being suffused with vile and corrosive chemicals. And my hair’s nearly two feet long.

There are precisely TWO lice in my hair.

So that was three days ago or so. This evening, thinking it was merely an overcautious formality, I got out the bug-busting kit and gave the children the once-over. The first under the comb showed not a even nit. How happy he was. The second adopted the position (head bent low over the side of the bath). And we all stared in disbelief (for this is a communal event) at the vast hordes of lice and nits immobilised in the pools of conditioner combed from his hair.

This, of course, meant that I had to go under the comb again myself. Nada. Zip. Nothing. Just lots of scabs removed from the previously healing wounds.

How can this be? How can we all have exactly the same treatment and it appear to have made not the slightest difference to one of us? Three days isn’t even long enough in the life-cycle of the louse for some mutant poison-resistant nits to have hatched. And besides, all our lovely lice must surely be related and therefore would share any resistant genes that had been handed out. Wouldn’t they?

I’m seriously, very seriously, considering shaving all our heads.