Channel 4’s flagship documentary strand Dispatches has robustly stood behind its investigation Cameron’s Money Men after the Conservatives suggested that it ‘flouted’election law.
The documentary questioned the funding of the Conservatives – particularly the donations made by hedge fund traders who had profited from the now illegal practice of short-slling, and the legality of the £3 million funding provided by Tory treasurer Lord Ashcroft.
Early on in the investigation, Channel 4 researcher Jenny Williams joined Team 2000, a club for Tory donors who give more than £2,000 a year. The Conservatives are now claiming that her two monthly donations totalling £334 breached funding law because they were really from Channel 4.
And they told the Mail on Sunday: ‘Channel 4’s behaviour is totally unacceptable. Electoral law is a highly sensitive matter, and agents provocateurs should not be used in this way to flout the regulations.
‘It is not acceptable for journalists to masquerade as a member of the Conservative Party – or any party – in a covert, self-appointed role to ‘check’ compliance procedures.”
The Ofcom Broadcasting Code allows subterfuge in the public interest – and as there is no election currently underway, there is no question of Channel 4 breaching broadcasting regulations covering elections.
A spokesman for Channel 4 told Press Gazette: ‘Channel 4 is quite surprised that the Tories are making a point over this donation of £334 when in the programme we are raising questions about a £3 million donation from Lord Ashcroft and as yet the Tories haven’t come back on that at all.
‘We are very confident that we haven’t flouted any election regulations. It’s completely legitimate to make such a small donation as part of a journalistic enquiry to test compliance procedures. We are very robust about this.”
Chanel 4 has pointed out that researcher Williams used her own name – and was completely open about where the money had come from when asked by the Conservatives.
A spokesman for Dispatches said: ‘We were completely open and transparent, in contrast with Lord Ashcroft about where his donations are coming from.”
The material gathered by Ms Williams about Team 2000 was not used in the final documentary.
On the question of whether Dispatches maintained its impartiality – a spokesman pointed out that the series has previously dedicated an entire programme to investigating the funding of the Labour Party.