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Undercover journalism under fire from the unscrupulous

Wed 2011-Dec-7 @ +08 15:11:28 pm

Lobbying firm Bell Pottinger exposed

By Gobind Rudra

Undercover journalism is in the spotlight in the UK after the Independent exposed influence peddling by lobbyists in public relations firms who trade on their access to politicians and senior government leaders.

Investigative reporters posed as Uzbek business representatives and got top lobbying firm Bell Pottinger to talk about their links, provoking stinging remarks by Tim Bell, a big cheese in British advertising and PR, who was a founder of Saatchi & Saatchi and media adviser to Margaret Thatcher through three general elections.

The outcry is similar to that in Malaysia last September when a Malaysian Insider reporter sneaked into a closed-door Umno meeting and reported Malay supremacy remarks by senior government servant Hamim Husin, deputy director of Biro Tata Negara.

Umno-linked Agenda Daily’s photo of Insider reporter Boo Su-Lyn who sneaked into an Umno Puteri meeting. Police reports were filed, and racist threats made.

“Unethical, underhand deception”, said Tim Bell, the man who created devastating attacks against the Labour party through the press. (The inherent deception of his firm’s practices subverting the democratic process was not discussed.)

The Indy retorted by saying: “Journalism is not a polite trade. It asks questions that people would rather not answer and it cannot always restrict itself to knocking on the front door.” And the Indy firmly rejected the contention that it would be unethical ever to use undercover tactics to record individuals saying things that they would not say openly in an interview.

As always there arises the underlying conflict between society’s right to privacy and of private conversation, society’s conventions about courtesy, and the larger public interest, that of society at large.

The Indy, as with the Malaysian Insider, by revealing the sleazier side of politics, served the larger interests of society, against which cultural conventions about courtesy and the closed-door of a political meeting are no measure.

Selling access to officials undermines the democratic process. Selling racism in government administration and in politics undermines society and democracy, not to mention the political neutrality and independence of the civil service.

Both need to be exposed. What is uncovered is the issue, and whether society has been better served by being informed.

The same cannot be said of the sleazy, underhanded and illegal methods used by the gutter press, whether at the Murdoch-owned Sun or the now-defunct News of the World or elsewhere in the world. Paying for and embroidering tittle-tattle about the private lives of footballers and celebrities, with a particular focus on their sex lives does not serve the public interest, only the interests of the circulation manager.

It is a cliché to say that what interests the public is not the public interest. Sadly that is essentially true. The public are little interested in matters of public interest, but keenly interested in sex, gossip and tittle-tattle. It is not equivalent to the public interest, no matter how often sleazy, lazy journalists and their patrons claim it to be, and no matter how uninterested the public may be in larger matters of concern.

The highest ideals of journalism remain: to serve society by serving the truth.

That was so with the Independent in exposing Tim Bell’s firm, the Guardian in exposing phone hacking by the News of the World, the Daily Telegraph exposing British MPs fiddling their expenses claims, The Sunday Times in exposing corruption at Fifa, and the Malaysian Insider in September last year in exposing Biro Tata Negara as the racist hotbed it was reputed to be.

Prying into the private lives of individuals — or cooking up stories about private lives such as with Lim Guan Eng’s son — deserves to be condemned.

Prying into what public officials do privately with their public office deserves to be exposed.

It is perilous for Malaysian journalists to do so. Journalists and newspapers are not above the law, and there is scant protection under Malaysian law, or from those holding public office, or even from hacks and other journalists who long ago sold out to the system.

The law is an ass, in a system designed to serve the private interests of those in public office, where law is a political weapon, used against political rivals as well as concerned citizens, to punish — or to enrich by selectively choosing not to punish.

But journalists who would serve their professional ideals, must serve a higher law, as well as their conscience.

It could be in ways as minor as flouting society’s conventions, by seeming to be rude in asking the awkward direct question, or challenging a public official’s often inane and ludicrous statements and seeming to be uncultured (kurang ajar) by not being deferential, or by sneaking into meetings.

Or it could be as major as flouting secrecy laws to expose corruption.

As the Independent says, “there are many measures used by the powerful to muzzle the press – from libel and employment laws to the Official Secrets Act. Serious discussion is needed on the difference between good and bad investigative journalism. But the boundary of acceptable practice is often determined not by the means used but by the nature of what is uncovered.”

The full measure of journalism is found in its fidelity to the truth and to society. The truth must prevail. That is the first law of journalism.

» Exactly What Journalism Should Be — the Independent’s leader

» The Lobbying File — related lobbying stories

© 2011. All rights reserved.

Gobind Rudra was once a newspaper editor whose privacy continues to be invaded by friend and foe alike. They seem to find it amusing.



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