Is there a cure for this New Year hangover?

And so 2002 starts in much the same way as the last palindromic year did, with the freedom of the press sitting at the top of editors’ wish lists for the coming year. Well, not quite at the top – but close behind the items ‘keeping my job’ and ‘holding the accounts department at bay’.

In 1991 their hopes rode on the brand new Press Complaints Commission to sort out the early January hangover from David Mellor’s Last Chance Saloon. And a pretty effective cure it turned out to be.

But this year the headache threatens to be, if anything, even more thumping, as journalists fight off various threats to their freedom to report. And now, as a special holiday gift, the High Court has decided to bring back to the mix that old favourite, protection of journalists’ sources.

This month, five national media groups will have their appeal heard as they try to reverse a High Court order demanding they hand over documents wanted – appropriately enough – by a brewing giant.

The Belgian company Interbrew thinks the return of the documents – which had been cleverly doctored to appear to be genuinely from the company – would help it track down the culprit behind what it believes was a calculated attempt to circulate misleading information about a possible take-over bid, which led to a fall in its share price.

In the week before Christmas it managed to persuade Mr Justice Lightman that he should enforce the handover of documents sent to Reuters, the Financial Times, The Independent, The Guardian and The Times.

The identity of the source, he said, was in the public interest because he or she (or they) could only have had the criminal intent of falsely affecting the company’s share price.

But Mr Justice Lightman’s ruling misses the bigger picture: that anything which forces a journalist to compromise a confidential source – regardless of the oddities of the case – will only deter others from coming forward in future to expose wrongdoing. Let’s hope the appeal court sees things differently.

Meanwhile, there’s the dull ache of celebrity privacy, with the likes of Catherine Zeta-Jones, Naomi Campbell and Sara Cox queueing to test the Human Rights Act – and Loutchansky’s throbbing threat to qualified privilege thrown in for good measure. It’s enough to turn an editor to drink.

Still, there’s always freedom of information to look forward to. But at the speed recent governments have been moving, who’s to say we won’t have to wait until the next palindromic year before it’s meaningfully introduced? Only another 110 years then.

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