PCC: Local newspaper's undercover probe was in the public interest but still wrong

The Press Complaints Commission has upheld a complaint against the Kent and Sussex Courier, saying that information about a doctor’s receptionist obtained using subterfuge and clandestine devices in breach of Clause 10 of the Editors' Code of Practice.

Although the newspaper acted in the public interest to obtain the story, “Saleswoman who targeted doctor’s patients and poor is exposed”, the PCC judged that its use of subterfuge was unjustified because it had no evidence to suspect wrongdoing.

The complainant, Nicki McLellan, was a receptionist in a local doctor’s surgery and also worked in the “multi level marketing sector” selling “wellness products”.

After reading a newspaper article about a woman in financial difficulty, McLellan, through a representative, contacted the Courier to get in touch with her and offered to provide the woman with a new source of money.

The newspaper sent an undercover reporter, posing as the woman's partner to go with her to meet McLellan. They were invited to join the receptionist in selling “wellness products”.

During the meeting she revealed that she recommends the products to patients in her doctor’s surgery – this is what the newspaper story focused on.

When the story was published, on 3 August 2012, McLellan complained that the newspaper’s use of subterfuge was unjustified because she had intended to help the woman and the paper had made no attempt to investigate the issue through standard techniques.

The Courier claimed it had been concerned about the woman being introduced to a scheme it suspected would involve investing a “considerable amount of up-front funding”. The newspaper said it wanted to know whether McLellan was “targeting” vulnerable individuals and that subterfuge was the only way to investigate.

The PCC acknowledged the newspaper had acted with “praiseworthy” motives but that the Code requires that subterfuge can only be employed in the public interest and then only when material cannot be obtained by other means.

It emphasised that subterfuge must only be used on the basis of evidence rather than speculation.

The PCC said that although the Courier did act in the public interest there was no evidence McLellan was involved in illegal or improper activity.

Separate complaints under Clauses 1 (Accuracy) and 4 (Harassment) of the Editors' Code were not upheld.

Charlotte Dewar, head of complaints and pre-publication services, said: "This case demonstrates how rigorously the commission enforces the code's stringent requirements regarding the use of subterfuge and other intrusive journalistic methods, even where they yield material that is clearly in the public interest.

“The commission praised the newspaper's motives and its sense of responsibility towards a member of the local community but ultimately was not persuaded that it had been able to demonstrate, as the code requires, that its methods had been properly considered in advance.”

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