The Daily Telegraph's recent revelations of British MPs expense claims have caused outrage amongst British taxpayers, reluctant, for example, to see their taxes being spent on moat cleaning or swimming pool maintenance. However, the revelations have also raised eyebrows due to the manner in which the Telegraph reportedly obtained the data.
In March, Labour MP Sir Stuart Bell claimed that the CD containing all the controversial information was being offered for sale on Fleet Street for £300,000. Newspapers including the Times and the Sun refused the offer, and although the Telegraph has so far refused to confirm or deny whether, and how much, it paid for the disc, the sum is thought to be between £70,000 and £300,000.
Alongside the problems and questions raised if the Telegraph did indeed buy the data, is the method in which it was obtained. The data was "reportedly contained in a computer disk stolen from the parliamentary fees office". Bell has voiced his opinion that if "this [disk] was received by unauthorised means, it is disgraceful that a national newspaper should stoop so low".
From a legal perspective, it is thought that - if the data was obtained illegally and the newspaper knowingly bought it - both the publication and the informant could be prosecuted. The informant actively sought payment for releasing this information. However, it seems unlikely that such a case would happen, and if it did would be successful, as the actions of both parties can be defended by the fact that the information served the public interest and was due to be released in July anyway (albeit in an edited form).
Looking at the situation from a journalistic standpoint, opinion is divided. Paying sources could work in both ways: information could be more reliable as its supplier could have only financial motivation, not political or personal opinions that could influence the data being provided. At the same time, payment could cause a bias in the information towards what the individual buying it wants to see.
Media commentator Roy Greenslade is very definite that the Telegraph has done nothing wrong. "When papers pay for documentary information it is very different to paying for an interview, where money can encourage overstatement and even falsehood," he writes. Whilst "chequebook journalism" is not appropriate in every circumstance, he "cannot see how paying for the disk tainted the information in any way". He is also keen to point out that ultimately "journalism is a commercial business".
The episode has certainly boosted the Telegraph in a commercial sense: early reports estimate that the publication's circulation rose by 93,000 when compared week on week. It has also given the print industry a boost - Follow the Media reports that the surge "points out yet again that people around the world have not forgotten about newspapers", but were just waiting for the kind of "real journalism" that can not be found elsewhere.
In terms of how the disk was obtained, MPs have asked the police to investigate and find out who is behind the leak. As to whether the action was criminal, Greenslade is quick to make the point that if a civil servant removes documents "because they consider their contents to be so important that the public should know about them, we do not regard that as theft".
As a general journalistic method, payment for information is full of pitfalls. However in this circumstance, it is highly unlikely that it in anyway altered the information received - information that was undeniably in the public interest. The anomaly in this situation is that the informant revealed the information for financial gain, although it has to be added that the Telegraph has so far not confirmed it paid for the data.
The general conclusion seems to be that the end justifies the means. In amongst the furore surrounding the revelations, MP's protests that the Telegraph's methods were ethically questionable are disputed. As Greenslade points out, payment - in this case - would not have affected the data, and taking the incinutaions of theft seriously would mean "no journalist could ever obtain any document, be it a piece of paper or a photograph". The Telegraph seems to be in the clear - if not entirely in terms of its method, then at least by circumstance.