The Guardian has been denied the right to publish seven documents relating to Barclays Bank’s tax affairs.
In a high court ruling in London this morning, Mr Justice Blake upheld an injunction that forced the paper to remove the documents from its website on Tuesday morning.
Blake said that, though there was no harm in discussing companies’ tax avoidance, it was not necessary to publish “privileged and confidential” documents in full.
The documents had been leaked to The Guardian, via Liberal Democrat deputy leader Vince Cable, by a Barclays “whistleblower”.
Blake said: “The information came about through a prominent and responsible member of Parliament, and had already been subject of public ventilation from The Sunday Times.
“I can see no reason why The Guardian should not be able to make use of the contents of the documents.
“Freedom of speech is a precious value in a democratic society, and one the courts must strive to protect and promote.
“However, that does not mean journalists should have complete freedom to publish confidential documents released in a breach of duty.
“If the debate can flourish without the publication of the full documents, that is a highly material factor.”
He added: “Responsible journalists must consider whether publication of personal details, even about the affairs of the corporation, is appropriate.”
Blake also said publishing the documents, which include lawyers’ letters, would “erode” legal professional privilege – which protects communications between a solicitor and their client.
As well as freedom of expression, The Guardian argued the documents, seen by 127 people before the injunction was imposed, had since spread on the internet and were no longer confidential.
But Blake argued the low-profile nature of those websites meant the documents’ “confidential character” was maintained.
He added, however, that confidentiality could “evaporate within weeks”, even with the injunction.
The Guardian’s lawyer, Hugh Tomlinson QC, argued in court yesterday the bank had suffered no specific damage as a result of the memos being leaked by a Barclays whistleblower.
He added that the documents were “historic” and that there was no suggestion the tax arrangements detailed in the memos were still being used.
In written testimony to the court, published by The Guardian, editor Alan Rusbridger added: “I considered these documents to be of the highest significance in the debate about tax avoidance.
“They revealed at first hand the processes involved in structuring extremely complex and artificial tax avoidance vehicles; how lawyers and accountants worked together to exploit loopholes in government legislation; and the degree to which they are sanctioned at the highest levels within Barclays.”
Guardian News and Media said in a statement: “Mr Justice Blake recognised the public interest in understanding how financial institutions go about their business, however the Guardian is prohibited from publishing the seven documents, even though in his judgment delivered today he confirmed that they are available elsewhere.
“The Guardian continues to believe that tax avoidance is a matter of high public and political interest and we will continue to revisit these issues and encourage the debate.”
A Guardian spokeswoman told Press Gazette: “The Guardian must not talk about that which many of its readers will have worked out for themselves.
“There is something almost comic about a high court sitting in camera in the Strand ordering a blanket of confidentiality over something which, even as they secretly ruminate about secrecy, is being discussed around the world.”