Free speech

James Mackintosh

How do you say “conspiracy theory” in Spanish? Ah yes, teoría de la conspiración. José Blanco, Spain’s development minister and the man delegated to explain to London investors on Monday why they should stick with the country’s bonds, thinks there is a conspiracy by financial markets and the international media to take down the euro.

So my colleague Izabella Kaminska pointed out on Alphaville. And the Spanish media went bonkers, because the FT had (quite wrongly) already become the focus of their story about Elena Salgado, the economy minister, visiting London. Here’s El Mundo:

‘FT’ se burla de la ‘paranoia’ de Blanco mientras Salgado da explicaciones sobre España

ABC:

El Financial Times llama «paranoico» al Gobierno el día que recibe a Salgado

And Nueva Tribuna:

FT llama “paranoico” al Gobierno español

Expansión was more rational, treating the story as a minor item, while bloggers – and, for poor Izabella, angry Spanish readers – poured out their scorn at the capitalist system, as exemplified by the FT and the “especuladores” in the bond markets.

They need to pull themselves together. The media is just carrying the message of the markets here: bond buyers see a risk that Spain’s budget plan is not going to be enough to stabilise the deficit and cut borrowing. The Spanish press should be telling their readers the government needs to explain better how it will enforce its cost-cutting plans (the markets remain sceptical given the risk of provoking serious political opposition by doubling up the recession), rather than attacking the international media.

Still, at least the level of outrage helps explain why the Spanish (and perhaps the Portuguese) governments are so touchy about being lumped in with Greece in a certain unfortunate acronym.

James Mackintosh

How to tell when a state is not yet fully confident in the financial markets: it blames the international media reporting on its financial problems for the financial problems themselves.

Italy has long rated the opinions of the FT’s Lex column as newsworthy items in themselves. And a Portuguese minister went on the record last year to attack a Lex headline, of all things (Pigs in muck, which suggested Spain, Greece, Portugal and Italy risked “turning into bacon”). Now the Spanish are getting worried. Two TV crews camped outside the FT’s London offices this morning in an attempt to intercept Elena Salgado, the economy minister, who was due to meet reporters and editors – which they see as an effort to give the FT a dressing down for being “muy crítico” of Spain (the crews stood outside the front door while the Spanish car arrived at the back, so they had to run to get distance shots).

How is it newsworthy that she’s visiting journalists? Well, the Spanish papers are running it as one of their main stories, on the basis that the FT has raised the possibility of Spain having to leave the eurozone (although today Lex raised the idea that Germany could solve the problems in the single currency region by leaving).

What would be newsworthy would be for her to summon Paul Krugman, the New York Times columnist. He identified Spain, rather than Greece, as the eurozone’s weak link last week, prompting Salgado to lash out:

The economy minister denied Spain was a risk to the euro and criticised foreign analysts such as Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman, who this week said Spain was the euro zone’s “biggest trouble spot”, and foreign media for being too harsh on Spain.

“Maybe there is a lack of comprehension about what the euro means for our economies,” Salgado said on Spanish radio

Ironic that this came shortly after Krugman was being approvingly quoted by José Sócrates, prime minister of Portugal – caught alongside Spain in the unfortunate acronym wars – for saying “deficits saved the world”.

My guess as to why the FT is the target today: the real news is that Salgado is meeting London’s investors in Spain’s sovereign debt in an effort to convince them that the government’s much-criticised plan to cut the budget deficit is enough to avoid a full-blown Greek-style crisis. But the embassy didn’t want to upset these talks by having film crews show her walking into a fund manager such as Pimco, as it would set the discussions off on the wrong note. So instead they leaked the time of her meeting at the FT to give them something to film and talk about.

Luckily for the embassy, the TV crews I chatted with were utterly unaware that they had the wrong target: they thought it was a major event to have a government minister visit a newspaper office, rather than the everyday occurrence it is.

Perhaps there is a real story, though: Salgado cried off at the last minute, sending her officials instead. Spin this in two ways and it is interesting (although note I have no evidence for either – perhaps she’s washing her hair):

1. She’s deliberately snubbing the FT as punishment

2. The crisis is so bad she hasn’t got time to see the FT

So far it is unclear whether the Spanish press has picked one of these stories.

EDIT: Having cried off, she then turned up anyway. Good news for the Spanish economy? Bad news? Or just that it didn’t take as long as she thought to catch up on the market’s negative reaction to the country’s plan to borrow nearly €77bn this year ?

Ian Holdsworth

Google famously brandishes the informal motto: “Don’t be evil”. This reminds me of a sign I saw in Britain’s Lake District last summer: “Be nice or go home”.

As you might expect, the customers in the Grasmere tea shop were all very nice, though I doubt most had been monitoring their demeanour as they tasted their toasted teacakes. Google’s slogan, on the other hand, was conceived as an internal touchstone for debating corporate ethical behaviour. I can picture the US search group’s senior executives pondering it for hours before making key decisions such as the one this week to end the controversial censorship of its search engine in China, at the  risk of being thrown out of the country.

It is clear that deep soul-searching accompanied the decision in 2006 to block certain websites in the first place. This was always a controversial deal: without such restrictions Google would not have been able to set up a local Chinese service at all. Google co-founder Sergey Brin was one Google executive who had reservations at the time.

No doubt the company tries to be utilitarian. But its motto is inevitably a hostage to fortune, providing an easy target for critics.

Take for instance the company’s Book Search project. This audacious drive to scan all the world’s books to create a universal online library, has not surprisingly riled many of the authors, rivals and governments it could affect.

On Tuesday the French government threatened to eject Google from a project to digitise the collection of the French national library, unless the internet group radically changed the terms of its book-scanning project.

A few days before Christmas, American science fiction writer Ursula le Guin resigned from the Authors Guild, one of the US groups that Google is working with, lambasting it for making a “deal with the devil”.

And on January 6, three writers’ groups sent an open letter to those members of the US Congress who are also published authors, taking issue with the revised Google Books Settlement, which provisionally settles the class-action law suit brought against Google in 2005 by the Authors Guild and the Association of American Publishers. “It isn’t fair,” the letter claims. “There are millions of book authors in this country who could be locked into an agreement they don’t understand and didn’t ask for.”

On Slate last year, Tim Wu, a fellow at the New America Foundation, suggested there was no need to fear Google. He put the case well:

We are talking about a venture to provide online access to books that, by definition, are unpopular. It’s great for a researcher like me, but as a commercial venture it is almost certainly a perpetual money-loser. Everyone (even Google itself) seems to have forgotten that there is a reason that libraries aren’t generally run for profit.

And in December, Daniel Clancy, engineering director of Google Books, told American broadcaster PBS:

There’s nothing we’re doing that prevents anyone from doing the exact same thing. And the one thing that I strongly think is the wrong answer is that we should lock all this stuff up, so that nobody can discover and use these books.

But these arguments won’t wash with Gary Reback, attorney for the Open Book Alliance, whose membership includes Google’s rivals Microsoft and Amazon.com. In the same excellent PBS video, he says:

What Google is proposing here is not like any library you have ever been to. It’s not a public library. It’s a private library. And it’s being run for profit, big profits. Google is going to charge university scholars, ordinary people, even schoolchildren, to get access to books that Google copied without the permission of the publisher or the author.

Another gripe deserves a mention: last weekend Google was forced to apologise to authors in China whose books it had scanned without permission.

What an unusual turn of events: an apology – and then Google stands up to China on censorship. Good and evil are so much easier to disentangle in Grasmere.

Kiran Stacey

The Wall Street Journal
Gordon Brown and Nicolas Sarkozy, For global finance, global regulation
Thorbjørn Jagland, President Obama and a new world order

The Guardian
Will Hutton, This tax on the City is a bonus
Timothy Garton Ash, All Europeans must understand the Swiss mistake

The Telegraph
Norman Lamont, A government addicted to spending
Roy Clare, The Rosetta stone can be shared where it is

The Times
Maurice Saatchi, Faster growth is the only way out of this hole
Melanie Reid, Get prisoners off drugs? Don’t be so silly

The Independent
Matthew Norman, How about a supertax on Blair?
Editorial: The glaring hole in this pre-budget report

The New York Times
Gail Collins, The joys of political sex
Asif Ali Zardari, How to mend fences with Pakistan

James Mackintosh

Chris Dillow’s Stumbling and Mumbling thinks the failure of the legal effort by Carter-Ruck, the lawyers, to stop the reporting of a Parliamentary question about Trafigura and its dumping of waste in Ivory Coast could be read as a vindication of Marx’s theories of how technology affects history.

Social relations are closely bound up with productive forces. In acquiring new productive forces men change their mode of production; and in changing their mode of production, in changing the way of earning their living, they change all their social relations. The hand-mill gives you society with the feudal lord; the steam-mill, society with the industrial capitalist. (The Poverty of Philosophy, second observation)

It is hard to believe that the outcry over the Carter-Ruck efforts, which saw it become the most-discussed item on Twitter, did not influence their decision partially to back down.

But to read this as a massive shift in social relations seems a mistake. After all, the British government’s efforts to suppress Peter Wright’s book Spycatcher failed dismally long before Twitter was invented or most people had heard of the internet – making the book much more popular than it would otherwise have been.

Dillow thinks the lesson is that technological changes can take a long time to filter through to the structure of society. I think that’s wrong – it is just that the structure of society does not often go through such gigantic shifts as the move from feudalism to capitalism.

Technology often has wide-spread, but less directly political effects. The arrival of cars, for example, allowed America to develop ever-larger suburban sprawl around its cities, drive-through restaurants, out-of-town malls and so on, changing the way almost everyone lived – but having no direct impact on the constitution. The same goes for the internet: politics is changed in many small ways by the internet, as politicians receive far more pressure from constituents who find it easy to send an email, fund-raising moves online and mass petitions start to influence government.

James Mackintosh

The #carterruck and #trafigura channels on Twitter are pretty self-congratulatory after solicitor Carter-Ruck partially backed down in its attempt to gag the press – but few noticed that the original gag remains in place, just with a variant to allow reporting of the parliamentary question about Trafigura.

Here’s a selection of tweets:

LewisMiles Lunchbreak: went to the bank, made a sandwich, twitter toppled the govt, poured myself a cup of tea…#carterruck #trafigura

pragi_uk: Q: How many #CarterRuck lawyers to change a lightbulb? A: None, thanks to #Trafigura the room already glows in the dark

mintonreport: #carterruck #carter-ruck #guardian The media are still gagged on reporting on the Minton report itself.

Helenwrites: Went to University once. And wrote 27,000 words on the Freedom of Speech. So I could take you #CarterRuck if I really tried… @mullies

plaggypig: Glad to see #carterruck defeated by a little indignation.

sjzara: Woo. Twitter does the job. #trafigura

mcgenius It’s a brave (or stupid) artist who’d want to be seen winning The Trafigura Art Prize on 3rd November http://bit.ly/1a0m3u #trafigura

CllrIanGilbert: The tweet is mightier than the writ … #guardian #trafigura #CarterRuck

arusbridger (Alan Rusbridger, Guardian editor): Thanks to Twitter/all tweeters for fantastic support over past 16 hours! Great victory for free speech. #guardian #trafigura #carterRuck

James Mackintosh

Carter-Ruck, the solicitors who specialise in sueing the media, have partially backed down in their efforts, on behalf of a client who could not be named for legal reasons, to stop all reporting of issues which could not be disclosed – including a Parliamentary question.

The Guardian – which, like the FT and others, had been gagged by legal proceedings we were not allowed to identify – was due to challenge the case in court when Carter-Ruck agreed to modify the restrictions.

The company mentioned in the Parliamentary question can now be identified as Trafigura, the oil trader, although anyone reading the political blogs or using micro-blogging site Twitter – where the issue quickly dominated discussion – already knew all about it, as bloggers had not been targeted by the legal proceedings.

The full written question, lodged by Paul Farrelly, MP for Newcastle-under-Lyme, yesterday, was:

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.

The reports mentioned in the question are on the internet, but I can’t tell you where, as much of the gag remains in place.

Let’s hope Jack Straw, secretary of state for justice, listens: the trend towards ever-wider gagging orders gives big companies and the rich and powerful yet another way to strangle investigative journalism – as if the overly-restrictive libel and confidentiality laws were not bad enough.

James Mackintosh

The power of the blogosphere and Twitterverse are overcoming an outrageous legal effort to silence the British media, which has – at least briefly – stopped the reporting of Parliament.

Carter-Ruck, the solicitors, are involved in proceedings which I’m not allowed to identify, preventing the FT, along with the Guardian and others, from reporting an issue I can’t identify, on behalf of Carter-Ruck clients I can’t identify.

Now Paul Farrelly, the MP for Newcastle-under-Lyme, has asked a question in Parliament about the gag – and we can’t report that either. Under the terms implied by the (secret) legal proceedings I’m not allowed to identify what it was about, or point you to the question itself – although hopefully it will be overturned on appeal. If it isn’t, this might finally prompt Parliament to intervene to stop judges issuing blanket orders which not only prevent a story being published, but even prevent the solicitors’ clients being identified.

Luckily it will take you about a second to search Google for the issue (I can’t tell you the obvious keywords). Details of the case, including the Parliamentary question and the leaked documents behind the question, have now been published by many political blogs, some published offshore – and some not, including one run by a major UK political magazine.

Twitter has also exploded with the issue, since the Guardian put it on its front page – bringing far more people to awareness of it than would otherwise notice, and prompting a planned flash mob. Actor Stephen Fry, among thousands of others, used the micro-blogging site to express outrage at the ban on reporting Parliament. Unfortunately I can’t give you the hashtags, but they currently make up the top three discussions.

The power of the blogs has already had an effect: Carter-Ruck has agreed, the Guardian tells me, to vary the order to allow reporting of the proceedings. I’ll update with links as soon as we have that confirmed.

FT dot comment

FT dot comment is no longer updated but it remains open as an archive.

Politics, economics, high finance and morality – this blog addresses the issues being considered by the FT’s comment team, and their thoughts.

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Christopher Cook is an FT editorial writer. Before joining the FT in 2008 as a Peter Martin Fellow, he worked for three years for the Conservative party.

Lorien Kite is deputy comment editor, a post he took up in 2009 after four years as a commissioning editor on the analysis page. He joined the FT in 2000.

Ian Holdsworth became assistant features editor in 2009 and was previously chief production journalist for the features pages.


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