The Daily Mail agreed not to publish a ‘highly damaging’ story about beleaguered bank Northern Rock that could have derailed Government attempts to save it, the paper’s City editor has revealed.
Giving evidence to the Commons treasury committee on the role of the press in reporting the financial crisis, Alex Brummer said ‘people at the highest level’urged the Mail not to run the story, which he said related to an emergency process at Northern Rock to close the bank down.
In September 2007, BBC business editor Robert Peston broke the news that Northern Rock had asked the Bank of England for an emergency bailout.
Brummer told MPs this afternoon: ‘Much after the events of the summer of 2007, towards the end of that year and early in 2008, we came across a document which could have been highly damaging at that point to Northern Rock at that point of the sales process.
‘At that point in time we were asked by people at the highest level if we would restrain ourselves from publication. We didn’t want to cause a problem which might prevent it from being rescued so we did hold off on that story.
He added: ‘We did show some self-restraint. We don’t run things just out of spite.
‘We carefully check what we’re doing and when we checked with sources they came back with a very overwhelming case of a potential problem if we ran the story.”
The Financial Times was hit with an injunction in November 2007 by the Blackstone Group, Northern Rock’s financial advisers, after the paper published a leaked memo on the sale process on its website.
The treasury committee invited Brummer, Peston, Financial Times editor Lionel Barber, Sky News business expert Jeff Randall and Guardian columinst and former Times editor Simon Jenkins to give evidence on whether journalists acted responsibly when covering the financial crash.
The cross-party group of MPs expressed concern about the use of unattributed, anonymous quotes in business stories that could prompt sharp moves in the markets.
Jenkins said he had tried to abolish the ‘highly damaging technique’ of using derogatory anonymous quotes when he edited The Times, because he felt it jeopardised readers’ trust in stories.
‘The New York Times had a rule that negative unattributed quotes were never used, for the very good reason that journalists could simply make them up,’Jenkins said.
‘If you’re using this highly damaging journalistic technique of an anonymous quote which is damaging to someone else you have a real obligation to your reader to explain why you’re not giving your source.”
Lionel Barber said the FInancial Times also tried to avoid anonymous quotes where possible, because the motive behind someone providing information without putting their name to it had to be questioned.
‘We at the FT are very careful how we use those quotes,’he added. ‘We’re not saying we wouldn’t use them but we need to know who they are and why they’re making those comments.”
Jeff Randall added: ‘I don’t put any pressure on sources to give their names. It’s up to them. I weigh up their credibility and integrity.”
Robert Peston faced a grilling from the committee on how he managed to break a series of exclusives, including reports on Northern Rock, Bradford and Bingley and the Lloyds TSB-HBOS merger.
Peston stood firm when pressed to reveal the sources of these stories, telling the MPs: ‘I am simply not going to go into who I talk to. I talk to lots and lots of people.
‘What I do is I try and understand what’s happening in the world, I talk to as many people as possible. I have never felt that I was getting special help from any source at all.”