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PPCS breaches media gag it first sought

By Rob Hosking

Friday 22nd August 2003

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It's not a good look when you breach a media gag you have sought to have imposed.

It's an even worse look if you then oppose attempts by other parties to have that gag lifted.

Meat company PPCS got itself into that position this week ­ effectively rubbing salt into the egg on its face.

The previous week PPCS successfully talked the Institute of Chartered Accountants' disciplinary tribunal into having charges against its former auditor, Ken Fergus, held behind closed doors.

The institute itself strenuously opposed the ban, saying the parts of the evidence PPCS was concerned about could be suppressed but that it would still be possible to have the media present.

However the tribunal, in a split decision, opted for closing the doors.

That in itself brought adverse media coverage about PPCS and the tribunal, and was compounded when PPCS executives spoke to one media outlet about the evidence being heard at the tribunal.

With PPCS having breached the gag order it wanted, the institute took this opportunity to have the issue of media bans revisited.

For the institute, Michael Reed QC said the issues commented on by PPCS chief operating officer Keith Cooper were crucial to the case.

"The comments about [contingent liabilities] having a zero value, or a zero chance of ever becoming a liability, is a central part of the case ... and here [Mr Cooper] is entering the fray and discussing matters on a one-sided basis, and it is unfair to the prosecution that there is a secrecy order affecting us, whereas [he] has chosen to enter the arena despite that privacy order," he told the tribunal.

He also criticised the original order as too wide. "It allows the whole hearing to be held in private, which is against the normal principles of any court."

He pointed out "the order was made originally mainly on the instigation of PPCS ... if the persons for whom the order were made have breached it, the basis for the original order has gone."

He also pointed out that in ruling on the litigation between PPCS and Richmond Meats, Justice Willie Young had heavily criticised PPCS, saying the behaviour of some of the company's senior executives caused "credibility problems" and that some executives had committed "repeated untruths."

"These matters are already in the public arena because Justice Young has made some very damning findings of impropriety on the part of PPCS."

For PPCS, Andrew Harmos said the perception had grown that PPCS had to restate its financial position because of the matters before the tribunal.

It was that perception that Mr Cooper had been addressing in his public comments.

The tribunal again opted to stay behind closed doors but chairman Tony Frankham criticised PPCS for going public when it had wanted the issue kept behind closed doors.

"We consider PPCS has entered into the arena contrary to the terms of the confidentiality orders made at their request and to protect their interests."

A decision on the charges against Mr Fergus is due in early October.

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