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The Daily Telegraph has serious questions to answer about its sting operation against government ministers

By Jonathan Isaby

Telegraph So yesterday it was Vince Cable and today a further three Lib Dem government ministers appear to have fallen victim to a sting operation run by undercover Daily Telegraph reporters.

Whilst I have not yet ascertained the full details of exactly how the Telegraph managed to gain access to the MPs in question, it appears that the paper is admitting that its reporters posed as constituents of the MPs and gained audiences with them at their constituency surgeries.

If this is the case, as far as I'm concerned those reporters clearly gained access to the MPs under false pretences by misrepresenting who they were and taking up precious surgery time with the MPs which is provided for people with serious problems needing resolving - problems which may relate to matters of life and death when it comes to health issues, or grave matters relating to housing, access to children and so on.

Is it not an abuse to use that time to entrap an MP by interviewing them under false pretences and secretly recording the encounter?

I would imagine that MPs will now be studying paragraph 10 of the the Press Complaints Commission Editors' Code of Practice which states:

Clandestine devices and subterfuge

i) The press must not seek to obtain or publish material acquired by using hidden cameras or clandestine listening devices; or by intercepting private or mobile telephone calls, messages or emails; or by the unauthorised removal of documents or photographs; or by accessing digitally-held private information without consent.

ii) Engaging in misrepresentation or subterfuge, including by agents or intermediaries, can generally be justified only in the public interest and then only when the material cannot be obtained by other means.

The Daily Telegraph will doubtless seek to claim that its sting has been in the public interest, but I am not convinced that abusing the privileged access to MPs afforded by the confidential arena that is the constituency surgery to entrap the MPs can be justified on that basis.

Indeed, it now risks making MPs suspicious of all those coming to them, potentially causing more suffering for some of those in genuine hardship whilst MPs seek to check and double-check their credentials.

The Daily Telegraph's exposé of the serious abuses of MPs' expenses was in the public interest - although the way it covered the claims of some MPs was disproportionate, causing many in Westminster to view the paper in a hostile manner.

This latest sting operation will do nothing to regain the paper the respect it lost in certain quarters and will cause many to question the ethics, moraility and legitimacy of the methods it is using to produce its journalism.

> Bagehot at The Economist raises similar questions:

"The Telegraph does not come out of this smelling too pretty. There is the oddity of a supposedly campaigning newspaper choosing to bury the most interesting bit of their scoop, the part about Mr Murdoch. There is also the question of entrapment. Senior Telegraph types were out on the BBC earlier today saying that readers had anecdotally reported hearing coalition figures saying darker things in private than their sunny public utterances. Therefore they had decided to investigate whether this was true."

"The balance between subterfuge and the public interest is like a finely-balanced pair of scales. The more subterfuge a newspaper uses, the weightier the public interest defence that is needed. Even if Mr Cable is exposed as a show-off and a ninny, I am not sure the import of what he said to the two yummy-mummy Mata Haris from the Telegraph was so great as to justify their skulduggery (skulduggery that will, what is more, make MPs even more reluctantant to be honest and open with real constituents in the future).'

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