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Peter Cuthbertson: Would political journalists be wiser to nip this creepy use of hidden cameras in the bud?

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Let no one fear for the future of investigative journalism. We now know that Chris Heaton-Harris doesn't like onshore wind turbines. No wonder the Guardian is crowing about this fantastic scoop.

Okay, there's a bit more to the story than that. Heaton-Harris, one of the real rising stars of the 2010 intake, also apparently egged on James Delingpole to raise wind turbines in a by-election. Their plan from the start was that he never actually put his deposit down to stand against the Conservative candidate. Interesting it is. A big story it isn't. Little wonder that the whips had the good sense to avoid overreacting, shrewdly declining to jump to the Guardian's tune.

We are now seeing a recurring trend of such stories. A couple of years ago Vince Cable promised a war against Rupert Murdoch over BSkyB - to two undercover Telegraph reporters. Cable was stripped of his responsibility for the BSkyB bid but kept his job. Alan Duncan before him wasn't so lucky. Filmed complaining about the treatment of MPs following the expenses scandal, he was sacked from the Shadow Cabinet. Heaton-Harris probably won't be the last MP put in this position.

One wonders how many other MPs' private conversations have been filmed in recent years - only to produce nothing newsworthy.

It well may be that I'm the only one who considers all this slightly tawdry and creepy, so I won't proceed with that point. But here's a different question: have journalists thought this one through properly?

Politicians are rarely praised more highly than for their independence of mind. More than this, representing the unique perspective of a particular section of the country is part of an MP's job description. But they must combine these duties with being loyal to a wider cause, with working hard to represent their party in the best possible light. This means loyally keeping private disagreements out of the media. No one should be surprised if some politicians are inclined to confide their ideas, differences and misgivings in what they feel is a private conversation. Even if some journalists have no ethical problem with trying to use this kind of conversation to break news stories and hound people from their position, they risk doing great damage to their own profession. This is true whether they go undercover directly or use the footage of groups like Greenpeace.

I fear for the future of political discussion in Britain if every time a politician says something controversial she stops to wonder if she's being recorded. One can imagine the paranoid fears running through MPs' heads. Not much of a local accent - is this nice, earnest young man really a constituent? Does she actually represent the group he claims he's working for? Is he reaching into his jacket pocket because he got a text message - or is he checking his microphone is on?

Journalists have more to lose from this than most. They depend upon politicians trusting them with views and gossip they wouldn't necessarily want printed or attributed. Do they think politicians will be able to trust them as much if they or their close colleagues have recently used just such a conversation to damage one of their Parliamentary colleagues? Lobby journalists would no doubt seek to reassure by saying that Chinese Walls separate them from the investigative reporters who share their office. "I'm not one of those journalists - I don't have a hidden camera! And no, of course I won't tip off John that these are your private views so he try and get you on film saying this!".

Maybe all those politicians will even believe them. But just in case they don't, journalists may be wise to nip this unsavoury trend in the bud.


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