24 October 2006

Phone tapping, dustbins and stings

When does private behaviour become a matter of public interest?
How do we strike the balance between freedom of expression and protecting people’s privacy?
In what circumstances are journalists justified in using deception and subterfuge in order to gain information?

These were some of the knotty problems posed by Stephen Whittle at the latest in a serious of guest lectures organised by the Department of Journalism Studies at Sheffield University.

Stephen Whittle

Mr Whittle, who was Controller of Editorial Policy at the BBC during the Hutton inquiry, gave a vivid picture of the dilemmas that editorial control entails when dealing with investigations and possible intrusion into private affairs.

His speech, entitled ‘Phone tapping, dustbins and stings’ looked at the recommendations as to journalistic conduct in the various codes of conduct and attempted to pin down exactly what we mean when we claim to be ‘responsible journalists’ acting in the ‘public interest’.

His examples of media behaviour ranged from the treatment of Charles Kennedy’s battle with the booze, Mark Oaten’s relationship with a rent boy, Simon Hughes’s sexuality, John Prescott’s croquet playing antics and the classic ‘fake sheikh’ sting that embarrassed Sven Goran Eriksson.

He showed the audience a clip from an investigative BBC television documentary, Funny Money, which successfully uncovered a bank note counterfeiting gang operating in the north of England.

But in order to gain the gang’s confidence, the BBC had to use investigators who themselves had criminal history, leading to a number of legal and ethical dilemmas.

The next guest lecture is on Tuesday, November 7 when Heather Brook will be speaking on the Freedom of Information Act.