Northern Rock vs. Wikileaks

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January 20, 2008

Today the transparency group Wikileaks released a number of 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 with a loan of £24 billion — £400 for each and every person in the United Kingdom.

The memo led to stories in the Financial Times, the Telegraph and many others. Despite being of clear public interest, the document and even the some of the stories arising from it were hit by censorship injunctions. Only Wikileaks continues to withstand the attack.

Northern Rock hired Schillings, an expensive London firm of Lawyers and public relations consultants. In one of their legal threats to Wikileaks, Schillings state:

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 orders they claim Wikileaks (and everyone else) must obey, under the basis that Wikileaks might do something, literally unspeakably evil, with the censorship judgements — publish them.

In their final salute to the absurd, Schillings claim copyright — on the demand letters themselves!

While the letters are laughable to any reasonable person, the UK censorship regime is 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.

The combined publishing might of the British press and the Internet has proved unfit (with the exception of Wikileaks), to provision a key document in British politics to the public. Every insider has it. Surely the British people deserve to see it, after all they've paid for it — £400 each.

The UK press is the most injuncted, litigated and censored among the liberal democracies. The population suffers accordingly and as we have seen, this hobbling of the UK press is now exported world wide via extra-territorial claims. The claims have limited power in theory, but are effective tools of suppression in practice as neither profit motivated ISPs nor publishers with UK business dealings will stand their ground. It is time for urgent reform.

When intermediate associations are weak and the state machine so powerful, private interests are always tempted to establish clientele relations with the state. They seek favours in the dark, so to speak, rather than demanding justice in the light of day. — Larry Siedentop, Democracy in Europe (New York: Columbia UP, 2001), p.123.


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