Twitter 2; Mainstream media 0 – Lessons of Trafigura and Gateley

For those who do not follow the British media, there have been two major stories involving Twitter within the last few days that offers lessons for the rest of the world including Australia.  

The first story broke on October 13 when Alan Rusbridger, editor of The Guardian tweeted: “Now Guardian prevented from reporting parliament for unreportable reasons. Did John Wilkes live in vain?”

John Wilkes had campaigned in the 18th century for the right to report parliamentary proceedings.

Rusbridger’s tweet was a clue to the blogosphere that the Guardian had been served with an injunction so wide ranging it could not even report the existence of the injunction, or subsequently a question that was asked about it in Parliament. The tweet related to a question asked by the MP Paul Farrelly (himself a former journalist) about a company called Trafigura and the dumping of toxic waste in Africa.

However, as Rusbridger wrote later:

“By the time I got home, after stopping off for a meal with friends, the Twittersphere had gone into meltdown. Twitterers had sleuthed down Farrelly’s question, published the relevant links and were now seriously on the case. By midday on Tuesday “Trafigura” was one of the most searched terms in Europe, helped along by re-tweets by Stephen Fry and his 830,000-odd followers.”

As a result the gagging order collapsed.

Among the sites linked to was information on Wikileaks which is run, among others, by the Australian-born Julian Assange. Writing on the site – dedicated to publishing public interest material that would otherwise be censored, Assange warned against the “Twitter back-patting storm”. He said: “Twitter did not save free speech — and free speech has not been saved.”

In the second case, the weight of public opinion, driven by Twitter, brought down the website of the UK’s newspaper regulator, the Press Complaints Commission.

This time round, the storm was triggered by an opinion column in the middle England newspaper The Daily Mail by the columnist Jan Moir. In the piece, she linked civil marriages for same sex couples with the death of Boyzone singer Stephen Gateley, whose funeral was at the weekend.

It was the type of piece – nasty minded, vaguely homophobic and innuendo-laden – that would have played fairly well with the Daily Mail’s contituency (this was the paper that brough us this year’s “Er, Bruce, the fire’s the other way!” coverage of the Victorian bushfire disaster). But it might previously not have drawn much further attention outside of the paper.

However, again, Twitter got hold of it, and the piece became a focus of global attention and media coverage in its own right. It drew more than 1000 comments, with advertisers withdrawing form the Daily Mail website as a result. From here, it feels like Moir’s own reputation is now in shreds.

Before Twitter, the column would not doubt have provoked some limited outrage, particularly because of its callous timing. But now, the speed at which the public can react means that mainstream media no longer automatically holds the upper hand.

(As Twitter’s reach  continues to grow in Australia, I wonder how Miranda Devine’s next hang-the-greenies-from-the-lamposts type column will fare?)

If ever you wondered what disintermediation means – the answer lies in Trafigura and Jan Moir.


Tim Burrowes


Get the latest media and marketing industry news (and views) direct to your inbox.

Sign up to the free Mumbrella newsletter now.



Sign up to our free daily update to get the latest in media and marketing.