Journalism, Entrapment and the Public Interest

30 08 2010

On Sunday the News of the World ran a sensational exposé of a Pakistan cricket agent who had taken a payment of £150,000 for entry into a “betting scam”.  The agent claimed that he was able to pre-arrange incidents – such as precisely timed “no-balls” – in a Test Match which could be the subject of bets.  Although – contrary to the headlines – the match was not being “fixed” (the particular incidents having no appreciable effect on the result), it was clear that the “News of the World” had exposed significant malpractice. The predicted “no balls” were bowled by two of the teams leading players. 

As the paper put it – with just a hint of hyperbole –

“In the most sensational sporting scandal ever, bowlers Mohammad Amir and Mohammad Asif delivered THREE blatant no-balls to order”.

If true, the allegations in the “News of the World” articles reveal malpractice at the heart of Test cricket and perhaps a conspiracy to defraud the bookmakers.  It is a good, old-fashioned scoop, based on a journalistic “set up”.   As Jon Slattery points out in his blog today, this story is the lead in The Times and Guardian today as well as being followed up by all the major broadcasters.  He describes it as

A victory for the type of red top undercover “sting” journalism often frowned upon by the more serious newspapers and broadcasters.

The News of the World story is undoubtedly a good one and raises serious public interest issues.  Most commentators have congratulated the “News of the World” on its scoop.  However, political blogger Martin Turner has raised the issue of “entrapment journalism”.  This is an important topic of debate.

We have pointed out in an earlier post that US journalists do not approve of “stings” or “entrapment”.   In England the position is less clear cut.  Jon Slattery recently summarised the debate under the headline “Entrapment Journalism: Sneaky but valid?”.

He drew attention to an article in the Independent about the “Fergie” (see our post here) and Lord Triesman cases by the investigative journalist and former member of the Sunday Times’ Insight team Phillip Knightley who says entrapment journalism is a cheap way for newspapers to get quick results. He says:

“Most of the reporters I worked with at The Sunday Times in the 1980s opposed the use of deception on principle. They took their lead from a statement by Benjamin C Bradlee, executive editor of the Washington Post: “In a day when we are spending thousands of man-hours uncovering deception, we simply cannot afford to deceive.” So why do newspapers do it? Going undercover is considered glamorous. Acting a role that exposes wrongdoing or greedy and bad behaviour attracts some journalists, particularly those seeking to become the heroes of their own stories. But above all, at a time of falling circulations and editorial financial restrictions it is a comparatively cheap form of journalism with a quick result.”

Some commentator’s views vary depending on the nature and subject matter of the “sting”.  Although he approved of the “Fergie” sting, Roy Greenslade was less impressed by the News of the World John Higgins sting and suggested that the PCC should act over the judicially condemned entrapment of John Terry’s father.

 

We suggest that it would be sensible for there to be clear guidelines for journalists.  The Press Complaints Commission Editors’ Code of Conduct says that:

“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.”

It is, however, curiously silent on the issue of entrapment – participating in and perhaps instigating wrongdoing.  This subject does not appear to have been explored in any of the PCC’s decisions.

As with entrapment in the criminal law, the line should perhaps be drawn at entrapment which draws someone into misconduct which would not have happened but for the journalist.  This kind of entrapment would be improper.  It could be contrasted with the position where the “target” is already enagaged in wrongdoing which has already been planned and is going to be carried out, whether or not the journalist is involved.  It appears that the News of the World “spot fixing” story is the right side of this line – with Mr Mazher Mahmood offering money to participate in an ongoing betting scam.

In his blog post Martin Turner says that

“At the Liberal Democrat Party Conference in Liverpool this month, I will be pressing for a change in the law, not merely the Press Complaints Commission Code, to prevent newspapers ever adopting these kinds of practices again”.

We suspect that, even with the Lib Dems now in government, such a change in the law is somewhat unlikely but this is certainly something to debate.


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26 07 2013
Tulisa, Mercer and Yeo: the Journalistic Sting and the Public Interest | LSE Media Policy Project

[…] had a post about this in 2010 in the context of another Mazher Mahmood sting (involving Pakistani cricketers).  The terms of the […]

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