Editors unite to defy Interbrew court order

Rusbridger: "complete agreement"

Four broadsheet editors and the editor-in-chief of an international news agency sat together in a room at the Financial Times and vowed they would not hand over leaked documents to Belgian brewer Interbrew.

"It was," said Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger, "probably the only time we have ever been in complete agreement."

The meeting last week was a prelude to the reception given to Interbrew’s solicitor, David Sandy of Simmons and Simmons, by each of the newspapers and Reuters when he served legal notices on them on Friday demanding the return of documents so that Interbrew could trace the leaker.

The Guardian, FT, The Independent, The Times and Reuters had failed earlier in the week in an attempt to appeal to the House of Lords against Interbrew’s demands, which all see as a threat to protection of sources.

Interbrew is so far adamant it will enforce the court orders. If it does, those editors – Rusbridger, Andrew Gowers, Simon Kelner, Robert Thomson and Geert Linnebank – could go to jail for refusing to comply.

Far more likely will be the imposition of extremely heavy daily fines until the documents are surrendered, designed to make the publishers think twice about their editors’ stand.

The International Press Institute has called on the brewer to halt the legal proceedings so that all legal remedies may be exhausted. The newspapers and agency want to appeal to the European Court of Human Rights.

Institute director Johann P Fritz said: "The fundamental issue in this case is the right of the media to protect confidential sources. If such a right were diluted, the media would find it increasingly difficult to expose corporate malfeasance."

He said that if the journalists were imprisoned it would "create a worrying precedent for penalising the media for carrying out their profession".

Interbrew say the documents it wants had been doctored and when stories that the company was about to bid for South African Breweries appeared, its share price plummeted.

Press freedom watchdog Reporters Sans Fronti?res, which is backing the newspapers, has noted recent efforts in five countries – Northern Ireland, Belgium, Italy, Luxembourg and France – to undermine protection of sources.

See leader column

By Jean Morgan

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