Student and followthethings.com intern Will Kelleher has an exclusive story.
The last two weeks before I handed in my dissertation were a bit frantic. I was trying to publish an article about the rugby ball I had followed in my University’s student newspaper Exeposé.
Because of the damning information I had found, it was right and proper to contact the company who made that ball for a response. They demanded to see the article and, having read it, went on the attack:
- “We operate to the highest standards in the industry.”
- This is an “unsubstantiated story that is very damaging to our valuable reputation”
- There is a “strong possibility” that the evidence “could have been placed there by a third party”
- “It would be very damaging if articles are written that imply something negative about us that is not properly evidenced.”
…and the final flourish…
- “We request that you do not publish this article and we work with you to ensure that the piece is correct and does not make any unproven allegations which will end in financial damage. Should you still feel you need to publish a similar article now, we would strongly urge you to speak to a lawyer who can advise you on the damage that can be done when unproven claims are publicised. Alternatively, you should consider removing any reference to us in the article”
The Student Guild and the newspaper both said they did not have the money or clout to back me up in a legal case so, at the eleventh hour, the story was dropped.
I’m now working as a followthethings.com intern, and we had an idea. You’ll notice I put one of the company’s statements in bold above. That is what we did: removed the name of the company from the story. It was easy. They’ll be happy now. And the story is now published – on followthethings.com – with redactions. A photograph that shows what the company argues never happens – their balls being sewn outside the factory in people’s homes – has also been redacted.
This attempt to gag my article, means that the story of my rugby ball is now also a comment on corporate censorship. Is this a gagging of the press? How do you get around these kind of threats and still publish? Mainstream newspapers can do this, but not smaller ones.
On followthethings.com we have published four redacted versions of the gagged article and photo. Each is more redacted than the last. You can click through them. Start here. How far do you go? How much of the information offends? How do the redactions fire your imagination? Who is that company? Why are they so keen to have their identity hidden? Does it matter?
I realised when doing my dissertation that it’s sometimes more powerful to give your reader enough detail to speculate, but not enough to be certain, about what’s happening. The company who made my rugby ball is unnamed in every version. But other versions also redact names, places, people, even the fact that it’s a rugby ball. What could this product be? Where’s it made? Why? How? By whom?
I would like this story to come out in full, unredacted, some time. I vehemently refute the claims made by the company. The Australian journalist I worked with – Ben Doherty – is used to such tactics, and his (2013) article ‘Eight ways to deny you’re using child labour’ is a brilliant exposé of ways in which companies try to silence their journalist critics.
For me, publishing the redacted versions will have to do for now. I’ve been gagged, but the story is out. I’m annoyed that the company’s aggressive response to my carefully researched dissertation and article worked… or did it…? What any student of followthethings work discovers, is that gagging and banning responses can draw more attention to an exposé (see this or that example). It’s called the ‘Streisand Effect’ (Monbiot 2013).
If you want the director’s cut full story you can read my dissertation here (Kelleher 2014). Yep the company’s name is redacted from that too…sorry!
Ben Doherty (2013) Eight ways to deny you’re using child labour. Sydney Morning Herald 1 October (http://www.smh.com.au/world/eight-ways-to-deny-youre-using-child-labour-20131001-2upul.html last accessed 23 June 2014)
Will Kelleher (2014) ‘You could bring down all of rugby with this’: following a ❚❚❚❚❚❚❚ rugby ball. BA Geography dissertation: University of Exeter (download).
George Monbiot (2013) Will EDF become the Barbra Streisand of climate protest? The Guardian 25 February (http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/feb/25/edf-west-burton-streisand-effect last accessed 23 June 2014)