Parts of the British media are in danger of becoming ‘thought police’ with undercover techniques masquerading as signifiant investigative journalism.The Daily Telegraph with its recent undercover operation to ‘discover’ the personal opinions of prominent Liberal Democrat politicians by reporters posing as constituents is an attack on the very freedom of speech that the media proclaims is the bastion of their own protection.
It is of little surprise that in a combination of two distinct political parties who have formed a coalition government to face immense national challenges at a time of crisis, there will be participants on both sides whose personal views are significantly divergent. It is the fact that those politicians are prepared to trade with their erstwhile opponents, moderating the policies of government with that very contrary view through compromise that offers a chance of a different result.
What did the Daily Telegraph do with the views they gathered through subterfuge? They spread the results over several editions. That suggests the ‘investigation’ had more to do with commercial targets and circulation-building than it did about a burning journalistic desire to expose the truth at the earliest possible opportunity.
There is a disturbing trend in journalism to test the ethics and morality of public figures through undercover stings. They are examining not what such a person has actually done, but the way they think. That is really dangerous and can so easily be extended to targets throughout our social structure.
Such coverage is a lot cheaper and easier to do, especially when using deceit, than to expose actual wrong-doing and it is pretty certain there is plenty of real transgression that should be investigated.
The politicians were tricked in a context they considered akin to the relationship between lawyer and client, priest and confessor, doctor and patient – surgery is the word they use to describe those occasions when constituents meet their representatives. The Daily Telegraph has now poisoned future political surgeries with a streak of mistrust – that is so unhelpful, but hey it sells papers so what should they care?
Editors competing in an overcrowded market and beset with cost pressures can be expected to keep with the trend (a bit like the overdose of reality shows on TV).
Who will be next in their sights? What judge can take their leisure and indulge in casual conversation at the dinner table ? What senior policeman can risk a chat over a pint at the local?
If we have need to test the ethics and morality of public figures through a series of ‘what if’ scenarios and their opinions under targeted encitement, maybe we need to build that into the recruitment/vetting process.