Leading financial journalists have voiced concern about Commons proposals for reporting restrictions to be imposed on business reporting.
The Treasury Committee has announced it is conducting an investigation into the banking crisis and said it will be examining “the role of the media in financial stability and whether journalists should operate under any form of reporting restrictions during banking crises”.
Media bodies including the Periodical Publishers Association and the Newspaper Society are currently preparing evidence to submit to the inquiry.
Daily Mail City editor Alex Brummer and BBC business editor Robert Peston have both said that any legal restrictions on financial reporting would be harmful.
Brummer told Press Gazette: “I think in this particular crisis the journalists have done the public a huge service. If they’d have had to rely on official sources for their information they’d have got duff information.
“Responsible financial journalism is a very important part of reporting a financial crisis, and journalists are being responsible.
“Financial journalists in this situation perform a fantastically useful function. The public need to be informed in these circumstances because they’re blindsided by what’s going on.
“They can’t rely on the politicians or the companies, because the companies whitewash their situation on a regular basis.”
Brummer said the Daily Mail had been passed a highly sensitive document on the contingency plan to close down Northern Rock before it was nationalised.
He said: ‘We decided it would cause so much panic. We decided as a responsible newspaper this was too sensitive a document and we could not publish it without undue panic and so we desisted.
“Self-regulation within newspapers is very strong in these matters. We did eventually publish a story after it was nationalised and everybody was assured that their savings were safe.
“There are times when you have to behave responsibly.”
Brummer said he felt that much of the investigation into the media’s role stemmed from the furore surrounding BBC business editor Robert Peston’s reporting of the proposed HBOS-Lloyds TSB merger.
Former Conservative leader Michael Howard called for the Financial Services Authority to investigate how Peston obtained details of secret talks between bank bosses and Chancellor Alastair Darling.
‘The story was already in the public domain. He just firmed it up with greater information,’said Brummer.
‘The idea that there was an official leaking going on is a misnomer because he is somebody who I know has very good contacts, not just in the Government but in the City and banking community and getting that information out, that was purely good journalism. Nobody should be criticised for doing that.”
Peston told Press Gazette he was sure the BBC would be making a submission to the inquiry, but on a personal level he felt it was difficult to understand what the Treasury were suggesting.
‘If it’s formal reporting restrictions of the sort that operate in a time of war or when national security is in some way threatened, I think that will be inappropriate,” he said.
Newspaper Society senior legal advisor Sue Oake said: ‘Financial journalists already operate under stringent statutory and self-regulatory controls which not only prohibit the making of any misleading statements but also outlaw practices such as insider dealing and market manipulation as well as requiring declarations of interests in appropriate cases.”
Oake said the PCC Editors’ Code of Practice contains detailed and explicit requirements, backed up by extensive guidance, over and above the law.
‘There is no evidence whatsoever that there has been any failing of the legal or self-regulatory regime or that any journalistic practices have contributed one iota to the present economic debacle,” she said.
“The suggestion of imposing curbs on the press, as well as raising obvious and very real Article 10 freedom of expression issues, will inevitably be seen as a crude case of ‘shooting the messenger’.”
Society of Editors executive director Bob Satchwell said it was ‘silly’to blame the messenger.
“There are already too many restrictions on reporting in this country. We don’t want any more the public has a right to know,” he said.
“Why should it just be the small number of people who are at the centre of financial world and in the Government who are allowed to know what is going on when it’s the public who stand to lose their life savings?”
The deadline for responses to the Treasury Committee’s consultation is 6 January. Responses should be emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org and should be no longer than 5,000 words.