On Sunday the transparency group Wikileaks released censorship demands it has received over a confidential briefing memo relating to the dramatic financial collapse of the UK’s Northern Rock bank.
The bank collapsed late last year under the weight of the US sub-prime lending crisis and was re-floated by Bank of England at a cost of 400 pounds for each person in the United Kingdom (24 billion pounds).
The memo led to stories in the Financial Times, the Telegraph and many others. Despite being of clear public interest, the document and even some of the stories arising from it fell to censorship injunctions. But Wikileaks continues to withstand the attack.
Northern Rock hired Schillings, an expensive London firm of Lawyers and public relations consultants. Schillings state in their legal threats to Wikileaks:
“Pursuant to an Order of the Royal Courts of Justice dated 13th November 2007 (‘the Order’) no person shall publish or communicate or disclose to any other person (other than by way of disclosure to legal advisers instructed in relation to the proceedings for the purpose of obtaining legal advice), inter alia, the information contained within the ‘Northern Rock Executive Summary’
“The Order also provides that any person who knows of the Order and disobeys it or does anything which helps or permits any person to whom the Order applies to breach the terms of the Order may be held to be in contempt of court and may be imprisoned, fined or have their assets seized.”
In addition Schillings invoke the DMCA (Unites States federal Digital Millennium Copyright Act) and WIPO (World Intellectual Property Organization) treaty.
Schillings refused to hand over a copy of the order they claim Wikileaks (and everyone else) must obey, under the basis that Wikileaks may let the public see it.
In their final salute to the absurd, Schillings claim copyright — on the demand letters themselves!
While Schillings letters are laughable to any reasonable person, UK censorship injunctions are not reasonable. Schillings attacks over the memo have been successful in censoring not only the Financial Times, the Telegraph and other UK papers, but at least half a dozen websites, including several located in the United States.
The United Kingdom provides no simple way of discovering what is under injunction or in contempt of court reporting restrictions — such orders are not even listed on the Her Majesty’s Courts Service website, or the British and Irish Legal Information Institute.
It’s well known among journalists and publishers that the United Kingdom is one of, if not the worst, liberal democracies for press freedoms and people of the UK suffer accordingly. It is time for urgent reform.
Here we have a situation where the entire combined publishing might of the British mainstream media and internet sector is able to provide the public with a key document in British politics.
The Northern Rock document remains available on Wikileaks.