View from City Road: Free flow of information is being put at risk

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The Independent Online
Yet again the sound of sledgehammers cracking nuts resounds through the City. The banking contingent is cock-a-hoop at its success in pushing through two amendments to the Criminal Justice Bill, which gets its third and final reading in the Lords today. These will make it a criminal offence to obtain financial information by deceit, or to seek to sell information gained by subterfuge.

The intention is to close down those 'financial information' companies which for a fee, and entirely legally, will collect confidential information on demand. As with many such well- meaning but ill-thought-out pieces of legislation, this approach could have wide-ranging implications.

The risk is to the free flow of information and especially to its publication. The danger was expressly recognised by Lord Inchyra, director- general of the British Banking Association, yesterday, though he offered no indication the BBA plans to try to address the (presumably) inadvertent results of its lobbying.

The amendments go before the Commons in October, and are expected to be waved through. Yet the drafting is woefully wide. What is the definition of 'obtaining by deception', for instance? Will this extend to those attending annual meetings without declaring they are shareholders? Will leaked documents become untouchable? And what about whistle-blowers?

There is a simple solution that will satisfy bankers and journalists alike. Insert a clause excluding information which is published, rather than offered for sale for other purposes. Those unhappy about journalistic methods could then take their concerns through existing channels, such as the Press Council and the libel courts. It would be a pity if legislation aimed at stopping spivs ended up inhibiting those who would expose them.