Last week’s media storm over the super-injunction which prevented the Guardian from reporting an MP’s question in Parliament is a superb case study in the potential for interaction between traditional and social media.
In case you were stuck on a desert island somewhere and missed the wall-to-wall coverage (in which case you probably just checked Twitter on your phone anyway), the Guardian was prevented from reporting a Parliamentary question and a leaked report regarding the multinational oil company Trafigura and allegations of toxic waste leakage in the Ivory Coast.
Trafigura engaged specialist libel lawyers Carter-Ruck, who managed to get a super-injunction which not only prevented the Guardian from revealing the contents of the report (the Minton report, now available on Wikileaks), but also stopped them from reporting the fact that they had been stopped from reporting it.
Confused? Don’t be. There’s a pretty good summary of events on the Guardian’s website, along with a breakdown of the super-injunction (follow the link to the annotated copy of it if you want to get technical).
One of the most interesting aspects of the case is the way Twitter users and bloggers seized on the information they gleaned from the story published on the Guardian website at 8.31pm on Monday 12th October, and from Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger’s tweet at 4.05pm that day:
It didn’t take long for Twitter users and political blogger Guido Fawkes to identify the question, by Newcastle-under-Lyme MP Paul Farrelly, and the company to which it referred.
In the pre-Twitter world (yes, it did exist), this might still have come out, but it would have taken a lot longer and the whole process would have been shrouded in mystery. This was a perfect example of interested people taking little nuggets of information freely available and piecing them together to report what the Guardian couldn’t. Quite a feat.
Clearly social media has a fantastic amount of power – just see the reaction to Jan Moir’s article on Stephen Gately if you still need convincing. But what struck me about the Trafigura affair was the way old and new media collaborated to produce a fantastic story.
Even better than that, it’s been pretty widely recognised that collaboration was the key to the story’s success. The Guardian couldn’t have reported what bloggers did for fear of being hauled before the High Court. But at the same time, bloggers and the Twitterati didn’t have access to the leaked Minton report and, to my knowledge, wouldn’t have known there was anything to tell had it not been for the Guardian’s article. Throw Newsnight and Private Eye into the equation, which were both involved in different aspects of the coverage, and I think that’s a pretty fantastic example of collaboration.
For good journalism to survive, we need all types of media to work together instead of being antagonistic. There’s no going back to journalists acting as gatekeepers controlling the flow of information (and why would you want to go back to that anyway?). But I think this case also shows the value of established news organisations with a strong reputation and big enough resources to pursue this kind of story.
There are plenty of cynics predicting the demise of newspapers and extolling the virtues of social media and crowdsourcing. But given what we’ve seen over the past week, wouldn’t it be better for quality journalism if both types were to co-exist and, dare I say it, continue to collaborate?