The Daily Telegraph has led the news agenda for a third day running today with revelations from investigative reporters Holly Watt and Heidi Blake – who appear to have been touring the country posing as concerned voters to covertly tape unguarded comments from Lib Dem members of the Coalition Government.
The latest MPs to make headlines with indiscreet comments are care minister Paul Burstow, transport minister Norman Baker and David Heath, deputy leader of the House.
Burstow said: “I don’t want you to trust David Cameron” to someone he thought was a voter, and Heath said: “George Osborne has a capacity to get up one’s nose doesn’t he?”
Both the journalists behind the revelations are youngish staffers in their twenties. Holly Watt joined the Telegraph from the Sunday Times four years ago and was shortlisted for Young Journalist of the Year at the British Press Awards this year. Blake joined the Telegraph last year and was journalist of the year at the 2007 Guardian Student Media awards.
Ethical questions have been raised about whether the stories breach privacy laws, or the PCC Code.
But it seems that on both counts – even in the unlikely event that the MPs concerned wanted to prolong their embarrassment by taking action – the Telegraph could clearly argue that the revelations were in the public interest. They do a show a different side to the Coalition than the one publicly on display, and anything which informs voters about what politicians really think has to be in the public interest.
Former shadow solicitor general David Howarth has a stab at suggesting the Telegraph reporters acted illegally in the Guardian today, but he doesn’t really get anywhere with it. His arguments about the stories potentially breaching copyright and the Fraud Act have the air of someone clutching at straws.
The big ethical question raised by all this is why the one slam-dunk revelation we have seen from the stings so far, that Vince Cable has “declared war on Rupert Murdoch”, was not mentioned with the other indiscreet comments made by Cable on day one – and omitted from the initial “full transcript” of the conversation which was published online.
Robert Peston, who apparently bounced the Telegraph into publishing Cable’s comments after he was passed the full transcript, said: “the whistleblower passed me the full recording of the interview having been told that Mr Cable’s remarks about Mr Murdoch’s attempt to acquire BSkyB were not going to run, at all”.
Peston seems convinced that a Telegraph insider was sure enough that the story was being suppressed to risk certain dismissal by leaking it. As former business editor of the Sunday Telegraph, Peston will have plenty of contacts there.
The Telegraph’s insistence that the decision not to publish Cable’s explosive revelation on day one was purely an editorial one may be true, but it doesn’t explain why the whistleblower was apprently so convinced otherwise.
I suspect we will never got to the bottom of this.
But one intriguing theory put to me by a well-placed source is that the Telegraph high-ups themselves were behind the leak to Peston.
My understanding is that there is no sign of a major mole-hunt going on at the Telegraph, and some insiders wonder why any journalist would want to scupper their career by giving the story to Peston?
The theory goes that the Telegraph-owning Barclay brothers have changed their mind and now back a full News Corp BSkyB merger – because the signs are that if such a deal took place, Murdoch would have to sell off some of his newspaper assets. A less powerful Murdoch in the newspaper market would be great news for the other major newspaper proprietors.
Thus it might have suited them for Peston to wield the knife and publish the comments which have led to Vince Cable being demoted, lest the fingerprints were traced back to them when it came to bidding for some former Murdoch assets further down the line.