Vince Cable
The Press Complaints Commission has upheld a complaint against the Daily Telegraph today, concluding its reporters were wrong to use subterfuge to secretly record conversations with Liberal Democrat MPs while posing as constituents.

The complaint was lodged last year by party president Tim Farron MP after undercover reporters from the newspaper secretly recorded business secretary Vince Cable claiming that he had "declared war" on News Corporation owner Rupert Murdoch. At the time, Cable was responsible for deciding whether to News Corp should be allowed to take full control of BSkyB.

In what Farron referred to as a "fishing expedition ... designed solely to entrap Members of Parliament", the Telegraph reporters also recorded fellow Liberal Democrat MPs Ed Davey, Steve Webb, Michael Moore, Norman Baker, Andrew Stunnell, David Heath and Paul Burstow.

Cable was stripped of his responsibility for the BSkyB decision following the release of the tapes, with culture secretary Jeremy Hunt being appointed to take over. Cable admitted recently that he considered resigning in the wake of the exposé.

The Telegraph has denied it undertook a "fishing expedition", claiming the secret recordings had been made in the public interest following information from several sources. Today's PCC decision acknowledged there was a broad public interest in the subject matter of the conversations, but ruled the newspaper had "reached the wrong decision in deciding to pursue subterfuge on this occasion" and broken Clause 10 of the Editors' Code of Conduct.

The ruling added the Telegraph had used "disproportionately intrusive attention" on the MPs, who it said had been selected "purely on the basis of their ministerial position".

Clause 10 of the Editors' Code states that misrepresentation and subterfuge can be justified by public interest, provided the material cannot be obtained by other means, and the PCC acknowledged that "the newspaper had uncovered material in the public interest regarding the remarks made by Vince Cable about the News Corporation bid for BSkyB".

But it ruled there had been "no suggestion that the intention of the newspaper had been to explore how he had been handling the bid" and said it "did not feel that the public interest was sufficient to provide justification for the subterfuge".

Farron welcomed the ruling, saying today that he was "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 MPs 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."

Daily Telegraph editor Tony Gallagher said that the newspaper accepts the judgement, but he claimed it "had a duty to investigate their [the MPs] conduct and that to be effective the use of subterfuge was necessary".

"Our inquiries confirmed that ministers were backing the Coalition in public while denouncing it to their constituents. Our revelations led to the demotion of a member of the Cabinet, apologies from a string of junior ministers and condemnation from their party leader. The journalists involved in this investigation were nominated for prizes at the industry's most prestigious awards ceremony."

He added that the newspaper fears the PCC adjudication has "alarming implications for the future of investigative journalism".

"It increases the obstacles facing newspapers wishing to carry out legitimate inquiries based on material which is often by its nature incomplete – and it limits their ability to expose matters of legitimate public interest which those in positions of power would rather shield from public view."

Image of Vince Cable by say_cheddar on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

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