Daily Telegraph's reporters were wrong to use subterfuge to secretly record conversations with Liberal Democrats MPs during constituency surgeries last December, the UK Press Complaints Commission has ruled. The PCC is upholding the complaint against the paper raised by Liberal Democrat president Tim Farron, Journalism.co.uk reported.
Last December two undercover reporters secretly recorded MPs including business secretary Vince Cable, who at that time was charged with taking the final decision on News Corp's bid to take full control over BskyB. Cable was recorded saying that he had "declared war on Mr Murdoch".
The scoop however was published not by the Telegraph, but by the BBC. A whistleblower at the Telegraph told Robert Peston, business editor for BBC News, that the Telegraph "had made a commercial decision not to publish those remarks".
Following the publication of the scoop, the power to take a decision on the bid was transferred from Cable to Jeremy Hunt, the culture secretary, who gave his approval in March.
The PCC has decided to uphold the complaint and censured the Telegraph for what Farron described as a "fishing expedition ... designed solely to entrap Members of Parliament", Journalism.co.uk reported.
As Press Gazette reported, in its defence, the Telegraph said its investigation proved Lib Dem Government members "were not consistent in their private and public statements, which it rightly brought to the attention of its readers and the wider public" and it also argued the constituency surgery was not a private forum, and that while MPs had a duty of confidentiality to their constituents, "constituents did not have such a duty for their MPs".
The PCC, however, decided the paper broke Clause 10 of the Editor's Code of Practice, which states that newspapers "must not seek to obtain or publish material acquired by using hidden cameras or clandestine listening devices", and upheld the complaint.
In its adjudication the PCC said that the Commission accepted from the outset that there was a broad public interest in the area the newspaper had chosen to investigate: the unity of a Coalition government, which was something of a new political departure in Westminster.
"There were some grounds, therefore, for the newspaper's interest in this matter, and for it to devote resources to exploring how the Coalition was working in practice. In the Commission's view, the newspaper had not sought to discount the terms of the Code or the need for adherence to it. However, it felt that, nonetheless, the newspaper had reached the wrong decision in deciding to pursue subterfuge on this occasion for the following reasons".
These reasons include the fact that the evidence on which the newspaper was acting was of a general nature and it didn't appear to have any foreknowledge that the ministers had expressed private views at odds with Coalition policy. Moreover, contrary to what the paper claimed, the level of subterfuge was high and disproportionate, in the Commission's opinion. The paper also decided not to put Cable's remarks on its first page. These, in the PCC's opinion, were in the public interest.
Commenting on the adjudication, Guardian's Roy Greenslade noted that the argument, raised by some, that the ruling will have negative effect on future investigative journalism, was unsubstantiated.
"The major benefit of the adjudication is to restate that fishing expeditions are unacceptable and that subterfuge should be used sparingly. As well as a public interest reason for its use, there must be good prima facie evidence as well", he wrote.
"I was steadfast of my defence of the Telegraph when it used its chequebook in order to break the story about MPs' expenses. This time, I cannot do other than join in the condemnation of the paper," he continued.