The Press Complaints Commission has upheld a complaint against the Daily Telegraph saying it breached the Editors’ Code by using subterfuge to secretly tape comments made by Liberal Democrat MPs in December.
The PCC upheld claims by Liberal Democrat president Tim Farron MP that the newspaper had embarked on a series of ‘fishing expeditions’against senior Lib Dem MPs including Business Secretary Vince Cable.
The complaints relate to a series of articles published between 21 and 23 December quoting comments made by the MPs in constituency surgeries that were secretly taped by journalists posing as constituents.
Farron complained that the journalists’ behaviour meant that, in future, MPs would be constrained from engaging in frank discussions with constituents.
The Telegraph rejected the allegation that it had simply undertaken a fishing expedition, arguing that it was acting on information received from MPs and the public.
Telegraph editor tipped off by Tory ministers
More specifically, at a private meeting between its editor Tony Gallagher and MPs at the Tory party conference in October 2010, Gallagher was told by Conservative ministers – including a Cabinet member – that the ‘views of some Liberal Democrat ministers were increasingly at odds, particularly on the issue of Coalition policies which had been backed publicly”.
These claims were repeated to several senior reporters and the issue was raised with other Tory MPs, but the ‘Conservative ministers were understandably reluctant to go on the record, or provide information or contacts in Liberal Democrat constituencies to back up their concerns”.
They also found a growing divide in the party between those who supported its leader Nick Clegg and those who ‘wished for the party to assert its identity more clearly in public”.
The complaint relates to eight Lib Dem MPs: Business Secretary Vince Cable, Minister for Employment Relations Ed Davey, Minister of State for Pensions Steve Webb, Deputy Leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats Michael Moore, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport Norman Baker, Andrew Stunnell, a Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State in the Department for Communities and Local Government, Deputy Leader of the House David Heath, and Minsiter of State for Care Services Paul Burstow.
‘After editorial discussion – where it was concluded that most of the information gathered could not be used as it might identify sources – the newspaper began to consider the decision to go undercover to test the allegations,” today’s PCC report states.
‘Previous newspaper investigations using extensive subterfuge were discussed, which had not been subject to censure by the PCC. The subterfuge had been kept to a minimum and was proportionate to the circumstances – posing as members of the public at constituency surgeries.
‘The newspaper had been informed that the apparent dissatisfaction was, or potentially was, systemic (an impression strengthened after the first approaches). As such, a decision was taken to approach as many ministers as possible, especially in view of the attempt to establish the weight of its case. While it had attempted to arrange interviews with the entire Liberal Democrat front bench, ten ministers had been visited in total.”
The Lib Dem tapes revelations:
- Ed Davey publicly defended Coalition cuts in October 2010 but in the surgery said he was ‘gobsmacked’by the announcement on child benefits which was ‘dreamed up out of the blue,’and said that housing benefit cuts were ‘deeply unacceptable’as they were going to ‘hit people while they are down”.
- Vince Cable had ‘spoken carefully’in public about the News Corporation bid for BSkyB owing to the legal process, but said to reporters that he had ‘declared war on Mr Murdoch”
- Michael Moore had told the BBC that the rise in tuition fees would prevent universities being ‘starved of the money they need to provide quality education’but told reporters his view was very different – that the decision was ‘ugly”, ‘horrific’and ‘a train wreck.
- Paul Burstow told the reporters: ‘I don’t want you to trust David Cameron”.
In its defence, the Telegraph said its investigation proved Lib Dem Government members ‘were not consistent in their private and public statements, which it rightly brought to the attention of its readers and the wider public”.
It also argued the constituency surgery was not a private forum, and that while MPs had a duty of confidentiality to their constituents, ‘constituents did not have such a duty for their MPs”.
PCC: Fishing expeditions are not acceptable
In its adjudication, the PCC said it had consistently ruled that fishing expeditions were unacceptable.
The Telegraph complaint related to clause 10 of the Editors’ Code which states that newspapers ‘must not seek to obtain or publish material acquired by using hidden cameras or clandestine listening devices”.
While it can be justified by the public interest, it must only be when the materal cannot be obtained by other means.
The PCC said: ‘There was a fine balance to be struck here. The Commission accepted from the outset that there was a broad public interest in the area the newspaper had chosen to investigate: the unity of a Coalition government, which was something of a new political departure in Westminster.
‘The Code’s definition of what is in the public interest includes ‘preventing the public from being misled by an action or statement of an individual or organisation’ and the newspaper was seeking to highlight an apparent disparity between comments made by MPs on Coalition policies in public and comments made privately.
‘The newspaper had said that it had acted on information from various sources, who had been unwilling to go on the record.’
However, the PCC decided that the evidence on which the newspaper was acting was of a ‘general nature’and it lacked specific information that would justifiy its public interest argument.
The watchdog felt it was instead acting on ‘broad assertions’that ‘could have been reported on an unattributed basis.’
The reported added: ‘Certainly, the level of subterfuge was – contrary to the newspaper’s assertion – high. The commission wished to make it clear that recording individuals using clandestine listening devices without their knowledge was particularly serious and intrusive, requiring a strong public interest defence.
‘Secretly recording a public servant pursuing legitimate public business was without question a serious matter.
On this occasion, the Commission was not convinced that the public interest was such as to justify proportionately this level of subterfuge.’
The commission also considered the implications on the democtraic process and, in particular the fact Cabinet ministers must adhere to the principal of collective responsibility.
Commenting on Vince Cable’s comments on the BSkyB bid – which were first revealed by the BBC’s Robert Peston, not the Telegraph – the report stated that the material was in the public interest.
However, it added: ‘there had been no suggestion that the intention of the newspaper had been to explore how he had been handling the bid (it made clear in its coverage that Mr Cable had spoken ‘despite not being asked about the issue’), and the newspaper itself had chosen not to make it a focus of its first day’s coverage.
‘The test for the Commission was whether there were grounds in the first place to justify the subterfuge: the Cable disclosures about Sky were not relevant to that.”
Commenting on the PCC’s findings, Farron said: “I am pleased that the PCC has upheld our complaint and defended the vital principle that MPs of all parties should be able to talk freely to their constituents in their constituency surgeries.
“I have always conducted my surgeries in the open and frank manner that everyone should expect.
“That was not affected by the Telegraph’s sting operation. I do not request ID, I do not require birth certificates, and nor should any MP have to.
“Everyone should be able to go an MP’s office and expect that the meeting will be in confidence, open and honest.
“The secret recordings threatened to undermine that relationship, and I am glad that the PCC has supported that view.”
The Daily Telegraph’s original story was published on the paper’s front page. Today’s PCC adjudication appears in full across the bottom of page four of the paper.