Telegraph sting sparks journalism ethics row

LONDON (Reuters) - The Telegraph newspaper’s secret taping of Vince Cable seriously harmed his career but may also have damaged British journalism and the public’s engagement with politics, several observers believe.

Business Secretary Vince Cable leaves his London home in west London December 23, 2010. Earlier this week, senior Lib Dem and Business Secretary Vince Cable was stripped of some regulatory powers after saying he was "declaring war" on News Corp Chief Executive Rupert Murdoch. REUTERS/Toby Melville

The furore has sparked a lively debate over whether the tactic was ethical or in the public interest, and is likely to see politicians much more guarded in future about what they reveal to the public.

Two young female Telegraph reporters taped Business Secretary Cable at his constituency surgery, where politicians meet the public and listen to their concerns on a one-on-one basis, in an atmosphere many consider confidential.

He told them he was “declaring war” on media magnate Rupert Murdoch, and that he could bring down the coalition government by quitting if pushed too far by the Conservative Party.

“Somebody who isn’t a constituent falsifies their name and address and comes in with a hidden microphone -- it completely undermines the whole basis on which you operate as a local member of parliament,” Cable told his local Richmond and Twickenham Times in an article published on Thursday.

Cable was severely reprimanded by Conservative and Lib Dem leaders and was stripped of his media regulatory powers, amid concerns over his neutrality in handling a proposed takeover by Murdoch’s News Corporation of TV pay operator BSkyB.

The Telegraph repeated the sting with several other Liberal Democrat politicians, their frank comments highlighting their party’s disaffection over working with the Conservatives and weakening coalition unity.

Journalism academics criticised the tactic.

“There’s almost a mutual self-destruct compact between news media and politicians, where the losers are the public,” said Martin Conboy of Sheffield University’s journalism department.

“You end up with the public disillusioned with the subterfuge of journalists, the perceived hypocrisies of politicians, and that will be reflected in voting decline and increasing public apathy towards politics,” he added.

Some see secret recording as sometimes justifiable in the public interest, a loose term that can be interpreted in many ways, but is generally seen as for the common, or civic good.

Others argue that taping a person expressing a personal opinion in private is not in the public interest.

“It probably was ultimately in the public interest. It was a sordid, sneaky, slightly slimy way of doing things,” opposition Labour politician Stephen Pound told Sky news, adding that it would make politicians far less likely to be frank in future.

However, British journalism has a long history of breaking news using similar tactics, and some praised the Telegraph.

“The two journalists did a great service to parliamentary democracy,” journalist Tom Bower told Sky news, saying that Cable had not been honest with the public on his views.

Editing by Steve Addison