A cheap way to deliver quick results as newspapers slug it out in hard times

May 24, 2010 · 9 comments

in Articles,journalism

Published in The Independent on Sunday, 24 May 2010.

The Duchess of York offers to “sell” her former husband’s services to a businessman for a promise of £500,000 and $40,000 in cash now.

The businessman turns out to be “the fake sheikh”, the News of the World reporter Mazher Mahmood, and the Duchess finds herself splashed all over the front page of the newspaper.

Lord Triesman, the Football Association chairman, tells a young lady of his acquaintance about an alleged plot by the Spanish and Russians to bribe World Cup referees in South Africa. The young lady has a concealed tape recorder and Lord Triesman finds himself splashed over the front pages of the newspapers.

A good week for undercover reporting? Or a shameful example of invasion of privacy, entrapment and shoddy, lazy journalism?

The ethics about undercover reporting are far from clear. The journalist has to weigh the public interest of the story and the importance of what is being revealed, against the opprobrium of the technique and the victim’s feeling, often shared by the reader, that they have been lied to and deceived. Donal MacIntyre, who went undercover many times for the BBC, said: “The golden rule is this: as an undercover reporter you must never encourage anyone to say or do anything they would not otherwise do if you had not been there.”

This is a judgement call and without hearing the whole tape – rather than the extracts provided by the newspaper – a difficult one to make. 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. Standard investigative journalism is expensive, often open-ended and uncertain. Many stories simply fail to stand up.

All that Mahmood and the News of the World needs is a tip-off that suggests the victim might be susceptible to an approach, and the external trappings to make Mahmood appear believable (a Rolls-Royce, a decent suit, an expensive flat or hotel room) and his own plausible manner.

His success rate is remarkably high. He claims to have helped convict 231 criminals using his undercover approach. But in July 2006 his methods came under scrutiny when three men were cleared at the Old Bailey of plotting to buy radioactive material for a terrorist “dirty bomb”.

Similarly, an exclusive about an alleged plot to kidnap Victoria Beckham collapsed after police found that Mahmood’s main informant had been paid £10,000 and could not be considered a reliable witness. Roy Greenslade, professor of journalism at City University, London, tried to publish a photograph of Mahmood but the News of the World obtained a temporary injunction claiming it was necessary to protect his privacy.

Wikipedia put the photograph on its website in 2008. Apparently it escaped the Duchess’s notice.

Phillip Knightley was a member of The Sunday Times Insight investigative team in the 1970s and 1980s

{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Avtojelektrika June 15, 2010 at 10:12 am

Please provide more detail on specific cuts and increases.

Michael Rose July 16, 2010 at 4:26 pm

We corresponded some years ago about the Markov affair and I’m increasingly convinced there something else afoot. For instance did any cabbie come forward to say where he took the assassin? You remember I was the doctor at St James’ , Balham who evidently first detected the pellet on the X-ray but I cannot have been because The Australian had the story in print before I had told The Express reporter I met for lunch at Simpsons etc. I’ve another version I’d welcome and opportunity to discuss with you.

Michael Rose August 16, 2010 at 9:31 am

It may go something like this:
The ricin arrives from Porton Down at a POBox No on The Adelphi.
Receiving the message: ‘it looks like rain’ the Battenburg boys go to work, one drives the taxi and the other joins the queue for the Balham Omnibus. How am I doing so far Bruce?

Michael Rose August 21, 2010 at 10:08 am

Someone better come up with an answer. Information is hard to interpret and this is precisely the pre-condition for random acts of violence.

Michael Rose August 25, 2010 at 9:21 am

How about something local, Brits never cared much what happened to them Orstalians. bunch of beer swilling morons without an ounce of culture, dear me. How very kind of all those Anzacs or Prozacs, Goodness knows why they called themselves Anzacs and those dreadful slouch hats, Oh my.
Where was I? Ah yes, some thing local. I’d say QUT might be good for some for a shock therapy STURM UND DRUNK!
Perhaps the Duchess of Edinburgh might find occasion to help out. Must be off to The Currumbin RSC. Damed good feed. Play a little Shostakovitch pour amuser les Harleys.
Yours,
Mike

Michael Rose August 27, 2010 at 9:03 am

Phillip: are you able to retrieve any details concerning the death of Peter Caddy in a road accident in Germany in 1994. Please do not publish this question unless you have good reason to believe it may scare the shit out of someone important

Michael Rose September 22, 2010 at 1:46 am

Well Hello again. I’ m on my way to Byron Bay. Qhere are you and what’s up? Do you know Roger Walters Ca Vera?
Regards,
Mike

IAN PAYNE October 15, 2010 at 8:57 am

A great paper called THE WALSALL OBSERVER which served my community for 150 yrs just closed and vanished from the world in 2008. Not one person blinked an eye-lid, cared and not one of the competitors even wrote a brief in memory/tribute piece.

We now get media and newspapers we deserve I say !!!

Robert Sharpe December 9, 2010 at 11:29 am

Dear Mr Knightley, I attended Sans Sousi Public School this week for their (infants) Awards Day. My grandson Jack won a Phillip Knightley Literary Award. I want to tell you how thrilled he was with his prize and I also want to thank you personally for your kindness and generosity.

Regards,
Robert Sharpe

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