Thursday, December 23, 2010

Telegraph sting raises issue of ethics

The Daily Telegraph has been criticised for lowering itself to tabloid journalism following its sting operation in which it revealed that some Liberal Democrats within the coalition had reservations about the running of the government. The undercover journalists, posing as constituents, secretly recorded several MPs as they spoke candidly about the prime minister David Cameron and government policy. But the damage could go further than undermining the reputation of a few politicians.

As the coalition scrambles to carry out damage limitation a public debate over media ethics in Britain has erupted. In the latest instalment from the Daily Telegraph Lib Dem ministers are quoted as claiming that prime minister David Cameron was insincere and not to be trusted and that chancellor George Osborne had "no experience of how ordinary people live". Vince Cable has already paid a heavy price in position and reputation over the affair. The business secretary yesterday has been stripped of his media responsibilities after being secretly recorded boasting he had "declared war" on tycoon Rupert Murdoch.

There has always been grumbling amongst the ranks of any organisation. Whether a large company or a political party there will always be individuals that have reservations about the leadership. "There is a lot of bitching in politics," Sky's political commentator Jon Craig acknowledged, but said the reports could be damaging. And it could stretch far beyond the house itself. Political commentator Iain Dale, speaking on Sky News on Thursday, said that both constituents and MPs are "going to be far more careful about what they say in future". 

There has been particular criticism of the apparent motives of the Telegraph, especially as regards its selective reporting. Writing in the Guardian, Michael White puts the recordings in the context of a "wired-up world" where trust is under pressure from all directions, from social networking websites Facebook and Twitter to Wikileaks and TV reality shows. The apparent suppression of Vince Cable's comments on Murdoch seemed to have been "for its own commercial reasons" he says. Maggie Brown, also writing in the Guardian, also questioned the ethics behind the Telegraph. "The only justification for subterfuge, after the event, is that the person or practices under investigation require extreme measures to gather incontrovertible evidence of wrongdoing that can stand up in a court of law," she said.

John Lloyd, in a Financial Times article, says the Telegraph sting broke into the assumptions of confidentiality and privacy that have been assumed to surround conversations between MP and constituent. He writes that both journalism and the public have a choice to make, "Between encouraging more such revelations by whatever means, or concluding that, beyond a certain point, journalism as invasive of confidentiality as it has shown itself in the past year is destructive of good governance."

On bulletin boards and in reader comments on media websites there have been mixed opinions. Many have criticised the comments made by Vince Cable and others, but there are fears amongst many that the reports could undermine British democracy. "This tiny link in our democratic process has now been destroyed," said one reader. "This isn't Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia." Another said the Telegraph "has shot itself in the foot with its despicable act" and that the real victim in the affair is openness and honesty.

Former Lib Dem MP Lembit Opik told the BBC such reporting tactics threaten the trust between MPs and their constituents and called the Telegraph's sting operation "despicable". He also dismissed the idea that the coalition was anything but firm and stable, but acknowledged there would be members on both sides who are unhappy about having had to make compromises.

The sting may have undesired effects on other aspects of journalism, some have warned. Rupert Murdoch's bid for a full takeover of BSkyB may go unhindered following the decision to remove Vince Cable from any decision making process. While it might be argued that Cable should have remained impartial, Murdoch's growing media empire worries many in the industry. Murdoch's News Corporation has under its wing a huge list of titles stretching around the globe. It has been likened to the Carver Network in the James Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies. The writer of the film, Bruce Feirstein, has stated that Carver was actually a portrayal of Rupert Murdoch's arch rival, British press magnate Robert Maxwell. Nonetheless there are concerns that such a large media organisation can serious effect news reporting. One strong critic is Australian journalist John Pilger who made a documentary in 2007 called Breaking the Mirror in which he describes the downfall of his old paper and the all-pervasive influence of Rupert Murdoch.

tvnewswatch, London, UK

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