The Evening Standard has won a Press Complaints Commission ruling which upholds the right of journalists to use subterfuge.
The complaint was brought by Consistent Hotel Staff after a Standard reporter obtained a job with the company to investigate allegations it employed and exploited illegal workers.
Although no story has yet appeared on the matter, the company lodged a complaint under section 11 of the Editors’ Code of Practice, which governs misrepresentation.
The company said that it had made clear to the Standard that it was prepared to discuss any questions it had.
It argued that the journalist had misrepresented herself by failing to identify herself as a reporter and invaded the privacy of employees by sharing company accommodation with them.
In its judgement, the commission said: “Newspapers must not undertake ‘fishing expeditions’ – they can employ subterfuge only when they have a public interest justification for doing so and there are no other means of gathering the required information.
“In this case, the commission considered the allegations of impropriety made to the newspaper about the company were sufficiently serious and specific to justify further investigation.”
The PCC said the newspaper was right to use subterfuge from the outset because: “Any company involved in wrongdoing might seek to suppress evidence of that wrongdoing were it to be questioned in a more traditional fashion.”
The commission rejected the privacy part of the complaint because no published material had appeared. It held that merely approaching someone – even undercover – does not infringe their privacy.
By Dominic Ponsford