Media groups warn over threat from European law

Top UK media organisations are uniting to urge the rest of the industry to lobby hard to stop financial journalists being hit by a new criminal law.

The group, which includes Reuters, ITN, Associated Newspapers, the Newspaper Society, the Press Complaints Commission, the NUJ and the Financial Times, working with the European Publishers Council, wants journalists exempted from a European Commission draft directive, now going through the European Parliament, designed to catch insider traders and stop manipulation of the markets. As worded, journalists whose information affects the markets in a deleterious way could face jail.

Anyone publishing "information which gives or is likely to give false or misleading signals as to the supply, demand or price of financial instruments … including rumours or false or misleading news" would come within reach of the proposed new law.

EPC executive director Angela Mills told Press Gazette: "The media seems to be disproportionately hit by it." Whether a journalist would be prosecuted would be decided by the effect the misleading information had. She said "intent to mislead" was not contained in the proposal. "Innocent misreporting by journalists would be caught along with somebody who deliberately sets out to distort the markets."

The draft directive does say the European Commission’s member states may introduce special provisions for the media for journalistic purposes.

"On the face of it, that’s fair enough and it could allow member states to introduce an exemption," Mills conceded, but warned that when the Financial Services Act was discussed in the UK, there was a furore over what journalists would have to do in terms of disclosure and whether that should be left to the PCC or to statutory regulation (Press Gazette, 2 and 9 March, 2001). Self-regulation won but with strict rules in-house for newspaper, magazine and broadcast journalists who write about financial matters. And UK law does have an "intent" test.

Mills is wary, however. "Any government offered through a European directive the opportunity to introduce specific provisions on the media is likely to try and draw up rules rather than make an exemption. It is just too ambiguous and too dangerous to leave it," she said. "The Commission ought to just make a statement that this area of media regulation is a matter for member states, without introducing the notion of having special provisions."

The UK group is to ask MEPs to put amendments to the proposals before the European Parliament by mid-November and ask individual media organisations to write to the Parliament putting their case.

"It is quite reasonable to expect that journalists who do wilfully distort the markets be subject to prosecution but there has to be differentiation between that and straight news reporting and analysis done in good faith," she asserted.

By Jean Morgan

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