There has been a significant freedom of the press win in the European Court Of Justice, according to London reports. Here’s the ruling and here’s a posting on the blogsite FT Alphaville by the former Financial Editor of The Guardian (which was one of the five papers involved). It is a significant ruling and goes right to the heart of so-called ‘rumourtrage’ and the leaking of information about companies.

It involves a leak to the FT and then other media groups back in 2001 of details a bid big global brewer, InterBrew, was about to launch for SA Breweries of South Africa. That bid eventually happened, but not before InBev went ballistic. Strangely, the Financial Services Authority, Britain’s key financial regulator, joined the legal witchhunt against the media groups as well. It proved as inept in this case as it was in regulating the activities of Britain’s banks and hedge funds etc half a decade later. It lost interest and withdrew back in 2004. But it still left a legal liability to cover costs for the media groups, such the European Court ordered by paid overnight.

The costs were put at 160,000 euros; small, but symbolically a big win, especially against the inept FSA. The Financial Times reported overnight:

Five news organisations at the centre of a battle over the protection of journalists’ sources on Tuesday won an important case on press freedom in the European Court of Human Rights.

The media groups – including the Financial Times – had gone to the court to challenge a decision made by the UK courts in 2001 that they should hand over leaked documents outlining a possible bid by Interbrew, a Belgian brewing company, for South African Breweries. The five refused to hand over the documents, claiming it would violate protection of their sources.

They argued that the UK High Court decision telling them to deliver a leaked document to Interbrew violated their right to freedom of expression and their right to respect for their home and correspondence under the European Convention on Human Rights.

On Tuesday, the Strasbourg-based court ruled that that the UK High Court order making them disclose the leaked document to Interbrew – now part of Anheuser-Busch InBev – violated their right to freedom of expression.

The best quote from the judgment was the following:

In this regard, the Court emphasises that a chilling effect will arise wherever journalists are seen to assist in the identification of anonymous sources.

In Australia, this quote should be burned into the brains of all Governments, the Federal Police and lots of lawyers, barristers and solicitors alike as they go fishing for well-heeled clients or as they try to nail anonymous sources and whistleblowers.

So far, Australian courts have not given journalists the same protection, or their sources. We only have to look at the way the Federal Government under Howard and now Rudd have continued to pursue leaks from the public service, the most notorious being the cases involving Herald Sun journalists Gerard McManus and Michael Harvey.

And then there was the disgraceful pursuit of Allan Kessing who blew the whistle on security problems at Australian airports and was hounded by the Federal Government via the Federal Police.

The European Court Of Justice Ruling should be read by every court in this country, plus politicians like Senator Stephen Conroy and the joke Attorney General Robert McClelland, not to mention Kevin Rudd and the clowns at ASIC. It might help them sort out their thinking on the leaking of sensitive information and its publication. — Glenn Dyer

Peter Fray

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