Former Financial Times editor Richard Lambert asked a typically salient question during a recent debate about the US media’s failure to spot the shadiness behind the collapses of WorldCom and Enron. Where, he wondered, was the media when all this was brewing? What an apt verb he chose. Even as he put the question, there was a storm doing just that over the paper he once edited. One that threatens the ability of the UK’s financial journalists to do what their US counterparts apparently could not: report on corporate might without being charmed by the charlatans or bullied by the bigwigs.
Interbrew, the secretive Belgian corporate giant, dispatched its lawyers last week to the FT’s offices. They wanted the paper to follow a High Court order to hand over leaked documents relating to Interbrew’s planned takeover of another brewing company. Documents it says had been doctored by a fraudulent insider to make the takeover appear more imminent than was the case. On such information are fortunes made and lost in the City. Interbrew, whose share price tumbled when the takeover was scuppered by the leak, wants to catch the leaker.
But its lawyers were rebuffed at Southwark Bridge Road. In a bright blue Skoda (as a nice touch from the FT reporting team tells us), they then dodged across the city to be similarly knocked back by The Guardian, The Independent, The Times and Reuters.
Once again, the law has to be defied to defend a fundamental right of a free press. Once again, the UK courts have proved they are no help to journalists wanting to protect their sources. Once again those journalists now turn to European courts for help.
Meanwhile Interbrew, with the backing of the Financial Services Authority, mutters about the courts imposing huge contempt fines on the recalcitrant media groups – and what an irony it would be if any of them were forced to back down because of pressure from their own corporate shareholders.
True, the Interbrew source may not be such an heroic one. It is not a carefully nurtured whistleblower but an anonymous insider that the brewer claims is a criminal. But nobody can be sure that is the case. And once any single source is given up, how many other whistleblowers – those who might lift the lid on future Enrons and WorldComs – will opt to keep quiet? How many other corporate giants will cry foul when the press is leaked information they would rather keep secret? The Interbrew hangover could yet be a real thumper.