Ofcom clears Channel 4 Dispatches over 'cash-for-access' sting undertaken with Telegraph

Channel 4’s Dispatches has been cleared by broadcast regulator Ofcom over its “cash-for-access” sting on two former foreign secretaries.

Channel 4 itself called on Ofcom to carry out an investigation in September after the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards cleared Jack Straw and Malcolm Rifkind of wrongdoing and accused reporters of unfairly tarnishing their reputations.

The Telegraph, which worked alongside Dispatches for the story, responded by saying: “We suspect voters will find it remarkable that, despite the scandal of MPs’ expenses, Parliament still sees fit for MPs to be both judge and jury on their own conduct.” 

Press regulator the Independent Press Standards Organisation received one complaint, but this was rejected because it came from a third party.

Ofcom today ruled:

  • Channel 4 took reasonable care to make sure the facts “were not presented, disregarded or omitted in a way that portrayed” the MPs “unfairly”
  • The pair were given an appropriate opportunity to respond to the allegations
  • The broadcaster represented the MPs’ views in a “fair manner”
  • Dispatches’ secret filming was “warranted in the circumstances”.

The Dispatches documentary ‘Politicians for Hire’ was broadcast on 23 February this year. It alleged that Straw and Rifkind were willing to use their positions for personal gain.

In the sting, the MPs were secretly filmed by undercover reporters claiming to represent a Hong Kong-based communications agency called PMR that was seeking to hire senior British politicians to its advisory board.

Rifkind was said to have claimed he could arrange ''useful access'' to every British ambassador in the world because of his status, while Straw boasted of operating ''under the radar'' to use his influence to change European Union rules on behalf of a commodity firm which paid him £60,000 a year.

In its latest bulletin, the watchdog said: "In Ofcom's view, the programme was a serious piece of broadcast journalism and that there was a significant public interest in the programme makers secretly filming both Sir Malcolm Rifkind and Mr Straw.

"We also considered that there was a genuine public interest justification for Channel 4 using some of the secretly filmed footage in the programme as broadcast in order to bring to the attention of the wider public the conduct of the two prominent parliamentarians who had held a number of senior ministerial positions, in relation to their commercial interests and their attitude to the potential conflict these interests might have with their political commitments.

"Ofcom recognised that the allegations made in the programme about Sir MalcolmRifkind and Mr Straw were serious in nature and that the broadcast of extracts from the secretly filmed footage of their meetings with the undercover reporters had the potential to impact adversely on the MPs' reputations.

"However, notwithstanding this, Ofcom considered that the public interest in broadcasting the secretly filmed footage in the programme overrode the potential negative impact the broadcast would have on the MPs.

"In coming to that view, we had regard to Channel 4's and the programme maker's rights to freedom of expression, as well as the public's right to receive information and ideas, together with the public interest, and we considered that these, in all the circumstances, outweighed the rights of the two MPs featured."

Dispatches editor Daniel Pearl said: “We are delighted this important piece of public service journalism has been thoroughly vindicated by the independent regulator. 

“This was a rigorously detailed investigation which paid scrupulous attention to fairness and accuracy at all times. 

“We are pleased that Ofcom has recognised that the secretly-filmed comments, ‘accurately represented the discussions that took place between the MPs and the undercover reporters’.”

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