Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Beer Company Intrigue

All sorts of good stuff in this story., or rather this meta-story.

Way back in November 2001, several European-centered news organizations, including Reuters, The Financial Times, and the Guardian, received under unclear circumstances what appeared to be a presentation originally prepared in connection with a planned corporate acquisition. The leak, if trustworthy, was important: Interbrew, a large Belgian-based beer company, (best known for Stella Artois and Beck's) was about to launch a bid to buy SAB, the South Africa based rival best known for Carling Black Label. And it was prepared to pay up to 650p per share for SAB, but it was going to try a low-ball bid of 500p first.

Some of the news organizations ran the story. They didn't say the bid would happen, but they did say they had received documents claiming, etc. On Nov. 29, 2001, for example, the Guardian published a story saying that it had a “secret document” which it said had been couriered to a “large chunk” of the business press. The price of SAB rose, of course, and my guess is that the leaker then sold his shares of it for a nice quick profit.

The truth behind these documents seems to be that they were real, but that the price and had been tampered with. (The actual price range contemplated in the real documents had been 400-550, not 500 - 650. The leaker presumably changed the numbers to create a higher price bounce.) Interbrew decided it would not go forward with the proposed bid. And it was furious at the unknown leaker, so it sued the media outlets and demanded to know where they had gotten this material.

Don't cry for Interbrew. They later became Inbev, and still later took over Anheuser-Busch. Anyway, back to 2001...the outlets resisted, Interbrew filed a lawsuit in the UK, and over the course of the following years, the case wound its way up to the European Court of Human Rights.

Possibly important point: NONE OF THE MEDIA OUTLETS INVOLVED had ever promised confidentiality to the leaker. Yet they resisted giving up information about their receipt of the tampered-with documents because they believed doing so would hurt their ability to make such promises when it was warranted.

December 15, 2009: ECHR has ruled in favor of the news outlets. "Interbrew's interests in eliminating, by proceedings against X, the threat of damage through future dissemination of confidential information and in obtaining damages for past breaches of confidence were, even if considered cumulatively, insufficient to outweigh the public interest in the protection of journalists' sources."

Comments, anyone? (And yes, Mr. Rather, you may go to the airline ticket counter immediately if you like.)

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