The alleged toxic-waste dumping trading company Trafigura has been in the news recently, along with the alleged press-freedom hating, injunction-loving writmeisters Carter-Ruck & Partners.
You probably know the background. Carter-Ruck had obtained a ‘super injunction’ preventing The Guardian from reporting any details of a parliamentary question about its client (who turned out to be Trafigura), tabled by an MP (who turned out to be the Labour MP Paul Farrelly).
As the newspaper said: “The Guardian is prevented from identifying the MP who has asked the question, what the question is, which minister might answer it, or where the question is to be found.”
The paper was also forbidden from telling its readers why. Just that there were “legal obstacles, which cannot be identified, involving proceedings, which cannot be mentioned, on behalf of a client who must remain secret”.
Pretty comprehensive stuff. But Carter-Ruck’s injunction could have gone further, preventing the Guardian from disclosing the fact that it had been served with an injunction in the first place.
I know this, because a ‘supergag’ like this was once clamped around me. And not in an exciting alt.sex way.
Just what we all need. Another credit card
I’d picked up some freelance from a big American finance company who had recently set up operations here in the UK. My job was to write the copy for a direct mail pack that was to launch a new credit card. Yes, I know we all hate credit card mailings and that this makes me worse than Radovan Karadzic, but it was the recession, OK? (The previous recession, not this one. How I miss the previous recession.)
Anyway, this company had the bright idea of offering credit cards to all the people who previously had been refused a credit card. The client had bought mailing lists bulging with such unfortunates. Now I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking that these people might have been refused a credit card for a very good reason. Perhaps for one of the following:
- They were profligate fools who had run up enormous debts then tried to hide or run away
- They were convicted felons or permanent residents of mental institutions
- They had no money. Literally, no money at all. Really, really bad risks
- They were bankrupts or had county court judgments against them
- They were all of the above, and what’s more they share more neurological characteristics with molluscs than with sentient humans
That’s what I thought too. Still, I wasn’t going to suggest anything like that to the client. “You want to offer a credit card to people who you know for a fact are amongst the worst credit risks in history? Are you fucking mad?” I wish I’d said that. Or even “OK, but you do realise that a strategy like this is financially unsustainable and, around 15 years from now, will help bring down the entire global economy? Just thought I’d mention that before we talk about whether you want a 4-page leaflet or a 6-page roll-fold.”
Instead I wrote the mailpack and, in my own small way, contributed to the inception of the great steaming pile of shit we currently find ourselves wading through.
Reader’s voice: Can we get to the bit about the gag now?
Of course. So, as part of my contract with the client I had to sign a Non-Disclosure Agreement, or NDA. A fairly standard document, signing it would merely confirm my undertaking to the client that I won’t tell the world what I’m working on or HOW UTTERLY STUPID IT IS.
But this NDA was a bit different. Because amongst all the clauses and subclauses was the injunction that I refrain from telling anyone that I
had signed the NDA. What did that mean? It meant that I couldn’t tell anyone what I was working on, and that I couldn’t tell them that I couldn’t tell them what I was working on.
So if, as would quite often happen, another freelancer were to ask what I was up to, the only permissible response would have been to stand there in total silence. It was gag-enforced rudeness.
Unless, of course, this client’s all-embracing NDAs were well known in the freelance community. In which case, a reaction of total silence would immediately signal to the questioner who you were working for, and they’d nod sympathetically. Learning about this, the company concerned might then have introduced another clause into the NDA:
6.3.0 (c) The Contractor shall not respond to enquiries about his/her current employment status with a period of sustained silence. Should the Contractor be quizzed to this effect, he/she should first deprive the questioner’s brain of oxygen until such time as the questioner does become dead before terminating his/her own life using any of the prescribed methods set out in Addendum 3.9, page xxiv.
You laugh but it could happen, according to a mentally unhinged conspiracy theorist I’ve just imagined.
In fact, the funniest thing about this whole episode occurred a few months later. I called the company to try and get a sample of my work and they said they couldn’t send me one. Why ever not, I asked. Apparently it was company policy not to supply ‘contractors’ with samples of their work. Er yes, but see my previous question: Why ever not? Confidentiality, they replied.
“Hang on,” I said, “you can’t send me samples of my own work because it’s confidential?”
“Yes. Completely confidential. Didn’t you read your NDA? You’re sworn to secrecy.”
“But how can it be confidential to me? I wrote every word. It’s all on my computer.”
“Then you must delete the files immediately. The work undertaken by us in the UK is completely classified. We don’t want it to fall into the wrong hands.”
“The wrong hands? But you’ve just bulk-mailed it to millions of people you’ve never even met. Skint and unreliable people. Not to mention the molluscs.”
The yankee buggers wouldn’t budge. Which is probably just as well. After all, who wants physical evidence of their role in the world’s most dramatic financial collapse since 1485?*
For a more enlightening piece about the Kafkaesque world of media gagging, read Afua Hirsch in the Guardian.