Op-Ed: Britain’s sleazy, snitching press is a disgrace to journalism

Posted Dec 22, 2010 by Michael Cosgrove
The shabby and underhanded tactics used by the Telegraph newspaper to snare the Liberal Democrat Business minister Vince Cable are not journalism; they merely confirm that Britain's press has forgotten its code of ethics and decency.
Vince Cable  British Liberal Democratic politican
Vince Cable, British Liberal Democratic politican
A constituency surgery - or clinic - in Britain consists of a series of private meetings between a Member of Parliament and his or her constituents during which constituents air their concerns and raise various issues of both local and national concern with their MP's. Surgeries necessarily work on the principle of privacy because if they didn't do so the very reason for their existence - to encourage a free exchange of ideas in a mutual climate of confidentiality - would be invalidated.
Enter Britain's Telegraph newspaper and the latest in a long-running series of squalid and duplicitous episodes in which journalists who hide their identities and intentions elicit and record information or reactions from politicians with the intention of publishing them.
The victim in this case was Britain's Business minister Vince Cable, who was deceived by two female Telegraph journalists who entered his surgery pretending to be young mothers who wanted information about child benefits.
During their discussion - and in what looks to have been a rather pathetic attempt to impress the women with his political clout and influence - Cable said the following on the subject of his dissatisfaction with the coalition government of which he is a member. "Can I be very frank with you, and I am not expecting you to quote this outside. I have a nuclear option, it’s like fighting a war. They know I have nuclear weapons, but I don’t have any conventional weapons. If they push me too far then I can walk out of the government and bring the government down and they know that. So it is a question of how you use that intelligently without getting involved in a war that destroys all of us." He went on to say that he had "declared war" on media magnate Rupert Murdoch and his plans to take over BSkyB, Britain's largest pay-TV company.
To say that Cable's petulant remarks were recklessly indiscreet would be an understatement. His farcical bragging is a discredit to him and it quite rightly led to him losing his responsibilities for the government's media policy, although he kept his job. He has egg on his face of course, but he is not the only one.
The Telegraph describes its actions in the following terms. "This newspaper became aware that on the doorsteps and in private meetings, many Liberal Democrat MPs were providing their supporters and voters with a frank assessment of the problems of government. The Daily Telegraph therefore decided to send two undercover reporters posing as Lib Dem supporters to find out what MPs were saying privately in constituency surgeries."
British Liberal Democrat MP Vince Cable s constituency office
British Liberal Democrat MP Vince Cable's constituency office
Politicians and other people in the public eye often make off the record comments to journalists, and many journalists - myself included - actually ask their sources and interviewees for them. Being able to comment off the record and know that what is said will not be repeated is an essential part of the trust-building that is an integral part of healthy relations between the press and those they interview.
For a journalist to reveal the content of an off the record conversation is a serious step to take and it is of course justified if, for example, what is being said is important to the national interest. That is one of the press' functions - to serve the public interest- and politicians know that they cannot expect to be protected by the off the record protocol if what they are saying is of national importance. On the contrary, it is the right and duty of a newspaper to investigate criminal behavior and abuse by politicians, businessmen and others in the public eye is and that principle must remain inviolable. And that in turn is why that kind of conversation is rarely of an earth-shattering nature.
But what the Telegraph did here is not an example of investigative journalism. It is no more than gutter-press entrapment, and it is being used so abusively and extensively by the British press that it is becoming a threat to the rules and conventions which link public figures to the press, and it will only add to the climate of destructive mutual distrust which is seeping into their relations.
Examples of the kind of tactics used by the British press have already been outlined on Digital Journal. The News of the World is the biggest offender, but it is by no means the only one as the Telegraph has demonstrated. The Times has been accused of infiltrating British political parties disguised as party members, the Daily Mirror has been accused of mounting a sordid attempt to entrap a female politician in a sex-oriented scam, the Independent is involved in yet another affair, as is the Daily Mail, and even Pink News, Europe’s biggest gay paper, set up the tawdry and secret recording of a senior British politician who the paper said was anti-gay in an effort to smear him.
However low British press standards may have been when that article was written, The Telegraph has dragged them down even lower. What it has revealed may interest the British public and its craving for bitchy gossip but that does not mean - and far from it - that it is in the public or national interest to know about it. The Telegraph may have snared one of its least-liked politicians, but it has done so at an exorbitant cost.
Stooping so low as to pose as constituents to collect damaging gossip and exploit it will have significant consequences. Good relations between politicians and those who vote for them rely on mutual trust and good faith, that is what a healthy democracy is all about, and The Telegraph has abused that.
All The Telegraph has succeeded in doing here is to undermine what representing constituents is all about in Britain. And the next time politicians all over Britain open their doors to welcome their constituents to their clinics they will most certainly be bearing this episode in mind, with the result that they will be much less forthcoming than they used to be because they will be forced to assume that every 'constituent' they see but have not met before may be a dishonest snitch who is not only posing as a constituent, but who cannot even claim to be a journalist.