Press in new battle to protect sources

Four newspapers and Reuters are to appeal after being ordered by the High Court to hand over documents wanted by Belgian beer giants, Interbrew.

The brewer took legal action in a bid to track down the culprit responsible for circulating false information which resulted in a fall in share prices.

The Financial Times, Independent Newspapers (UK), Guardian Newspapers, Times Newspapers and Reuters Group appeared in court after Interbrew sought an order that they hand over documents which contained false market-sensitive information. The judge, Mr Justice Lightman, said that Interbrew had received a presentation from its advisers, Goldman Sachs International and Lazard Brothers, which contained highly confidential information relating to a possible takeover bid for South African Breweries. However, he said that someone had obtained a copy of the presentation, doctored it by inserting false market-sensitive information and then sent the copies to the news organisations.

"On the evidence before me the only likely object of the source in doctoring the presentation and distributing the doctored copies in this way was to create a false market in the shares of Interbrew and South African Breweries, and in this he appears to have been successful," said the judge.

There was no longer any confidentiality in the contents of the doctored documents but Interbrew wanted to obtain access to the originals in a bid to identify who had distributed them, said the judge.

"There is a pressing need because the source poses a continuing threat so long as he remains unidentified both to Interbrew and the security of the market in its shares, and the shares in any company which may be the target of a possible takeover bid," said the judge.

He said he considered the circumstances were "exceptional and that the original documents should be handed over to help Interbrew in its bid to trace who was responsible for circulation of the documents. The judge said the news organisations owed no duty of confidentiality to the source of the documents.

The case fell within the established legal principle that, where a person through no fault of his own got mixed up in the wrongful acts of others, he was under a duty to assist the wronged person by giving full information and disclosing the identity of the wrongdoer, said the judge.

He rejected a claim by Interbrew that the news organisations were in breach of an "equitable obligation of confidence" in making use of the leaked documents in the first place.

By Roger Pearson

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