Trafigura’s BBC victory fuels libel reform calls

5:05 pm - December 17th 2009

by Sunder Katwala    

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A victory for Carter-Ruck and Trafigura in the High Court as the BBC have offered this statement in open court with regard to Newsnight’s reporting of the dumping of toxic waste by Trafigura off the Ivory Coast.

That Trafigura illegally dumped 500 tons of hazardous waste in Abidjan in 2006, leading to a public health emergency where many thousands of people sought treatment, is not in dispute.

Trafigura has paid $200 million to the government of the Ivory Coast and settled in London for £30 million a joint action made by 31,000 Ivorians.

Trafigura has insisted on the BBC accepting that the toxic waste dumped by the Probo Koala did not cause deaths, serious or long-term injuries, and withdrawing Newsnight’s report alleging that it did so. Trafigura’s victory today is that the BBC has agreed to do so.

Carter-Ruck told the court in the agreed statement that the multi-million pound compensation settlement involved a joint statement between Trafigura and those affected which “recorded that the experts instructed in that case had been unable to identify any link between exposure to the slops and the deaths, miscarriages and chronic and long-term injuries alleged”. The BBC now also accept this and withdraw their report to the contrary.

United Nations Special Rapporteur Prof. Okechukwu Ibeanu had earlier concluded in a report published on 3 September 2009 that:

On the basis of the above considerations and taking into account the immediate impact on public health and the proximity of some of the dumping sites to areas where affected populations reside, the Special Rapporteur considers that there seems to be strong prima facie evidence that the reported deaths and adverse health consequences are related to the dumping of the waste from the Probo Koala.

Does this not raise the question as to whether Trafigura or Carter-Ruck might not also want to attempt legal proceedings against the UN Special Rapporteur directly, rather than only taking action against media organisations attempting to report on the controversy caused by the dumping incident?

Critics have described this as creating an atmosphere of “libel chill” against legitimate public scrutiny.

The BBC’s concession has already fuelled calls for libel reform, as Left Foot Forward report.

English PEN and Index on Censorship have expressed dismay at the outcome.

Their joint statement says

We believe this is a case of such high public interest that it was incumbent upon a public sector broadcaster like the BBC to have held their ground in order to test in a Court of law the truth of the BBC’s report or determine whether a vindication of Trafigura was deserved. The deal is neither open nor transparent.

They believe that costs were a major factor behind the BBC’s decision. They cite the leading media lawyer, Mark Stephens of FSI, the cost of such a case would have been in excess of £3 million.

John Kampfner, CEO of Index on Censorship said today:

Sadly, the BBC has once again buckled in the face of authority or wealthy corporate interests. It has cut a secret deal. This is a black day for British journalism and once more strengthens our resolve to reform our unjust libel laws.

Carter-Ruck will no doubt differ – and may well consider their defence of Trafigura’s public reputation to have been another resounding success.

8000 people have signed the petition for libel reform bill at

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About the author
Sunder Katwala is a regular contributor to Liberal Conspiracy. He is the director of British Future, a think-tank addressing identity and integration, migration and opportunity. He was formerly secretary-general of the Fabian Society.
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Reader comments

1. Left Not Liberal

Evil, evil, fucking cunts.

What he said.

We should have a whip round, get Probo Koala to deliver some toxic waste to Carter Ruck’s offices. Then tell them there’s no direct link to that light headed feeling they’re getting.

It’s absolutely appalling that Carter Ruck has beaten the B.B.C. , what in God’s name is happening to our rights to Freedom of Expression . It is now time to reform the libel law things are getting out of hand . The BBC is our national treasure . Why have they had to bow down to Carter Ruck , it’s becoming very scary when there are gags to prevent the truth from being broadcasted to the
population . Big Brother ( Carter Ruck) needs gagging before our human rights are eroded .

Please tell me what I’m missing here.

The BBC therefore acknowledges that the evidence does not establish that Trafigura’s “slops” caused any deaths, miscarriages or serious or long-term injuries. Accordingly, the BBC has withdrawn those allegations and has agreed to broadcast an appropriate apology on Newsnight

This is not a case where libel law is being used to conceal truth by railroading an individual who has not got the wherewithall to defend a court case. It has to be assumed that the BBC withdrew the allegations and apologised because they could not prove that the allegations were true.

I understand the antipathy towards large oil corporations poisoning innocents by dumping toxic waste but this is not like the super injunction case. The BBC cannot be allowed to broadcast lies without the opportunity for correction.

How much does it cost to prove what you think is true?
Well in Newsnight’s case it would have cost them 3 million quid.
The reason they could not ‘prove’ that people have died is because the 30,000 who successfully sued Trafigura decided to settle with a ‘no deaths’ deal. This meant it was Newsnight who would have to ‘prove’ it in court.
The truth, according to Carter Ruck is a lie unless you have the money to prove otherwise in court. Thats the state of the libel law at the moment.

Well, if the BBC is inclined to roll over and hand out wadges of cash to the Muslim Council of Britain, why is anyone surprised?

@ 6 This meant it was Newsnight who would have to ‘prove’ it in court.

Sorry to stick on this but if they couldn’t prove it they shouldn’t have alleged it on national television. They need to give us information they can demonstrate to be true.

By not defending the action, they are admitting that they messed up and they should sack whatever lawyer cleared it for transmission.

If you had the money behind you, you could sue me over anything you want and it would still cost me about £50,000 even if I won the case.
Newsnight did not mess up, its just they got bullied and out gunned.
It costs huge amounts of money to prove anything in the courts and that is why we need libel reform.
If music makes a difference…try this libel reform campaign track by Sly and Reggie

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  12. BBC caves in to lawyers « Shepherd’s Bush

    […] 19 December UPDATE: With thanks to readers who have sent me the text of a statement the BBC made in Open Court regarding this case, which you can find here with commentary from the Liberal Conspiracy blog here. […]

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