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Examining The Ethics Of Undercover Reporting Media Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Media
Wordcount: 3529 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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“In a day in which we are spending thousands of man hours uncovering deception, we simply cannot deceive. How can newspapers fight for honesty and integrity when they themselves are less than honest in getting a story?”

Benjamin Bradlee, former executive editor of the Washington Post.

Last month, two high profile public figures in Britain were the subject of tabloid sting operations which have caused widespread controversy and debate. This essay will analyse the actions of the journalist or newspaper editor in each case, from both a deontological and consequentialist standpoint, which will serve to illustrate the ethical complexities surrounding the whole concept of undercover reporting.

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Duchess of York plots to sell access to Prince Andrew, Mazher Mahmood, News of the World, 23 May 2010

On 23rd May 2010, the News of the World reported that the Duchess of York, Sarah Ferguson, had been duped into accepting a $40,000 (£27,000) cash down-payment from an undercover reporter posing as a Sheikh. The paper’s ‘Investigations Editor’ Mazher Mahmood had offered the Duchess a total of £500,000 to be introduced to Ferguson’s ex-husband Prince Andrew, who is a British trade envoy. The meeting where the deposit was handed over to Ferguson and details of the bribe were discussed was captured on tape, and this video was posted on the News of the World website alongside the article.

The News of the World may claim they have done Britain a good service in exposing Ferguson’s illicit business deals, but in reality, they have not presented any proof that she had been engaging in bribery and corruption before the News of the World entered the fray and staged this elaborate sting operation. They claim that they have proof that she had already “cashed in” by introducing two international tycoons to Prince Andrew, which resulted in lucrative business deals for which she gained a commission. Would it not have been enough to report on this evidence which had been provided by their “close royal associate” who “blew the whistle” on her? They say they have procured all the details of her transactions with these “tycoons”, and information about the new company Ferguson set up last month to handle her illicit business, but have not presented any of these details in the article, or in any of the myriad of articles published about the Ferguson affair since the videos were posted on the website. Yes, the News of the World did indeed expose that Sarah Ferguson was disposed to a corrupt deal with an international business man. But who is to say that she would not have been involved in any illicit dealings had the News of the World not set her up in this way?

In April, another of Mahmood’s undercover sting operations brought a premature end to the career of snooker champion John Higgins when Mahmood filmed him in a hotel room in the Ukraine agreeing to fix a lose in an upcoming snooker match in exchange for €300,000. He had been set up by a group of undercover reporters posing as businessmen. Higgins has since claimed that he had been intimidated into the deal against his will, but has been suspended from snooker pending an investigation, perhaps indefinitely. Mahmood claims that the decision to set Higgins up was based on a tip-off from a “sports insider” that Higgins was engaging in match-fixing. However, no details or evidence was presented in the article to back up the claims. This is just another recent example of the kind of undercover reporting that Mahmood is engaging in for the News of the World, where a sensationalist scoop, usually involving a celebrity or public figure, is caught on camera, causes a brief media frenzy, but is quickly forgotten when the next sting operation hits the headlines.

Mahmood, who has been posing as the “fake Sheikh” for undercover scoops since 1984, claims to have exposed criminal activities in his sting operations which have led to at least 250 criminal convictions. His disguise has duped paedophiles, con men and drug pushers – the exposition of whom could be deemed as being in the public interest – as well as philandering government ministers and celebrities with recreational drug habits, whose stories may be of salacious interest to the public, but are almost certainly not in the public interest. The motivations behind the News of the World’s obsession with undercover scoops are simple: deceit can often be the quickest and easiest way to get a story; the journalist has control over the scenario that will eventually end up in the paper, so essentially they can create the headline before the incident has even taken place; and secret footage (audio recordings, video, and grainy or pixilated photographs) sensationalise the story even further and make for great multimedia content for the web.

The man supposed to bring sound judgment to the FA, Ian Gallagher, Mail on Sunday, 16 May 2010

In another undercover exposé last month, the chairman of the Football Association in England, Lord Triesman, was secretly taped claiming that Spain and Russia were plotting to bribe referees in the upcoming World Cup in South Africa. The recording was made by Triesman’s former aide Melissa Jacobs during a lunch meeting. Jacobs proceeded, with the help of celebrity publicist Mark Clifford, to sell the tapes to the Mail on Sunday for a reported £75,000, who ran the story on the front page on 16th May. While it must be noted that the person who made the recording was not a journalist, but an associate of Triesman’s, similar principles around the ethics of clandestine recording and undercover investigation techniques are at issue here (leaving aside the ethics of chequebook journalism).

However, there is one crucial difference between this article and the undercover ‘sting operation’ articles written by Mahmood mentioned above, in that the scenario was not staged in advance by the newspaper. It appears to me, from the details presented in the article, that Jacobs attended the lunch meeting with the intention of getting taped evidence of their affair to sell to the newspaper, and the conversation about the World Cup bribes arose unknown in advance to her. While she prompted him during the exchange for more information, she did not incite the topic of conversation, nor did she steer the conversation in any particular direction. This is demonstrated in the following transcript from the tape, which is quoted in the article:

Lord Triesman: ‘Spain are looking for help from the Russians to help bribe the referees in the World Cup, their votes may then switch to Russia.’

At this point, Miss Jacobs asks: ‘Would Russia help them with that?’

Lord Triesman: ‘Oh, I think Russia will cut deals.’

Miss Jacobs: ‘Why will Russia help? Are Russia in the World Cup? ‘

Lord Triesman: ‘No they’re not. ‘

Miss Jacobs: ‘Oh no they’re not, they’ve got nothing to lose?’

Lord Triesman: ‘Absolutely nothing at all to lose. Exactly.’

Since the article was published, Lord Triesman has resigned as chairman of the FA, but stated that he had been a victim of entrapment and his comments about the conspiracy were never intended to be taken seriously. Fifa’s ethics team is investigating the allegations, and if it is proven that they were based in truth, the Mail on Sunday’s decision to print the story will be vindicated (though this is looking increasingly unlikely). The article was met with widespread derision in Britain, most likely because the scandal seriously jeopardised England’s chances of securing their bid to host the 2018 World Cup. But the reasons given by most critics were that the methods used by the Mail on Sunday to obtain information for the article were “dirty” and unethical.

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Consequentialist analysis

According to the consequentialists, the ends must justify the means in order for an action to be considered morally acceptable. “The morally correct action is that which brings about the highest possible total sum of utility”(Wolff, p.49). It could be argued that in attempting to expose Sarah Ferguson’s corrupt activities, the News of the World were acting in the public interest, ridding the world of a corrupt act and thus bringing the greatest amount of happiness to the greatest number of people. If readers really believed that the journalist was acting “to prevent the happening of mischief, pain, evil or unhappiness to the party whose interest is considered,” which according to Bentham, (‘The principle of Utility’, quoted in Singer, p.307) should be the main premise for any course of action, it could be argued that he was right to masquerade as a Sheikh in order to expose Ferguson’s illicit business deals. Similarly, if the main motivation of the Mail on Sunday was to prevent corruption and match fixing during the World Cup, then the newspaper acted in the right way according to consequentialists. However, as I have explained, it is highly dubious that these were the main motivations of the News of the World or the Mail on Sunday, as I would argue that they were more interested in printing sensational stories that would grab public attention and sell more papers than the ultimate end.

While the strongest argument against untruths has been forward by Kant and the deontologists (see below), utilitarians were also strongly against falsehood and deceit, because of “the harm done by misleading particular individuals, and the tendency of false statements to diminish the mutual confidence that men ought to have in each other’s assertions” (Sidgwick, ‘Issues for Utilitarians’, in Singer, p.316).

There is another ethical issue raised by the Sarah Ferguson exposé article that would be of interest to a consequentialist, and that is the use of anonymous sources. Tabloids like the News of the World are well known for paying large sums of money to well-connected sources, and the information fed to them by their “close royal associate” may well be legitimate. It is widely recognised amongst journalists and editors alike that it is worth retaining the identity of a source in order to get a story that is in the public interest, and I believe that this is also agreeable from a consequentialist standpoint. However, who is to say that this information, supposedly provided by a source close to Ferguson, was not entirely fabricated? As I have argued in a previous ethical enquiry, journalists should strive to attribute their information as much as possible in order to increase trust between reporter and reader. The reliance upon unnamed sources in articles like this leaves many questions in a readers’ mind, and if anonymous attribution was to be universalised, readers’ trust in journalism would be greatly diminished

Deontological analysis

The concept of truth is central to Kant’s Categorical Imperative. Truth telling is more than just ‘a good thing’, as telling the truth creates trust, and trust is a social necessity. Communication between human beings in any society depends very much on the assumption that what we tell each other is true. Deception itself is an impossibility without this assumption, as a person cannot be deceived unless they are prone to believing what they are told. Kant steadfastly believed that any untruth, even if seemingly harmless in intent (or even uttered in protection of oneself or another) is harmful to society, as untruths diminish man’s capacity to trust. “A lie always harms another; if not some other particular man, still it harms mankind generally, for it vitiates the source of law itself” (Kant, ‘On a supposed right to lie from altruistic motives, in Singer, p.281). Mahmood engaged in active deception in order to get his Sarah Ferguson story. Everything about the set up was a blatant lie – his name, his profession, his intention, his promise to pay her £500,000 – he even lied to her outright by denying there were secret cameras filming her when she asked in jest if it was a set up.

Lies deliberately intend to deceive, where the aim is invariably to take advantage of another person’s trust. According to Kant, “what the honest but reticent man says is true, but not the whole truth. What the dishonest man says is something he knows to be false. Such an assertion is called in the theory of virtue, a lie… it is a serious violation of a duty to oneself; it subverts the dignity of humanity in our own person, and attacks the roots of our thinking.” (Kant, ‘Letter to Maria von Herbert’, Spring 1792, in Singer, p.283). Jacobs engaged in a form of passive deception in order to gather the taped material. She did not actively lie to Lord Triesman, but deceived him by hiding her intentions, and the fact that she was taping their conversation without his knowledge. Similarly, when journalists pose as members of the public in order to get a story, they are also being passively deceptive, as they are misrepresenting their true intention. However, this form of undercover reporting is widely accepted by editors the world over, even those that would vehemently oppose actively lying or setting someone up in order to get a story.

According to deontologists, the outcome of the action should not be a factor in deciding what is right or wrong in any given situation. Behaviour has a moral weight all of its own, which “the moral law within” can determine (Kant, ‘The noble descent of duty’, in Singer, p.41). Central to the deontological school is the concept of duty. From a deontological perspective, journalists have a duty to their readers, an obligation to present the truth to the public, regardless of the consequences that the revelation of this truth may produce. In the case of the Sarah Ferguson article, the News of the World published the article with no heed to the consequences to the reputation of the Royal family, and similarly, the Mail on Sunday published the article about Triesman’s knowledge of match fixing with little regard to the reputation of Triesman himself or the chances of England securing their bid to host the World Cup in 2018. According to Kant, “truthfulness is a duty which must be regarded as the ground of all duties based on contract, and the laws of these duties would be rendered uncertain and useless if even the least exception to them were admitted.” (Kant, ‘On a supposed right to lie from altruistic motives’, in Singer, p.281). If the News of the World and the Mail on Sunday truly believed that they were bringing the truth to the public in exposing Sarah Ferguson’s corrupt business deals, and Lord Triesman’s knowledge of game-fixing, then their intentions were correct according to deontologists. However, in reality, selling papers overrides most tabloids’ altruistic motives, and it could be strongly argued that both are more concerned with entrapping public figures in order to sell papers, and thus they are not acting in accordance with the categorical imperative.

Objective reporting, one of the most central tenets of good journalism practice, rests on the premise that the journalist remains a passive observer of the material about which they write, and that they record reality the way it is rather than attempting to shape that reality themselves in order to “create” a story. Most, if not all, ethical guidelines for journalists state that an undercover journalist should be a witness to the action, not an instigator or an active participator, nor should they do anything to prompt an action that would not have occurred should they not have been there. Above all, the journalist should never incite people to commit a crime. However, News of the World exposés, many conducted by Mahmood in disguise, have raised ethical questions over the entrapment of celebrities by journalists working at the paper. Critics have claimed that such undercover operations are an invasion of privacy, and that public figures are being lured under false pretences into doing and saying things that they would not have, had they not been prompted or encouraged by the undercover journalist. His elaborate scenarios are staged to entrap the subject, who is manipulated, often into committing a criminal act (Mahmood often stages drug purchases – last November he set up a cocaine deal with Ted Terry, father of English footballer John Terry, also for a News of the World exclusive).

One of the main considerations a news organisation must take into account when deciding if deceptive undercover reporting is warranted is if this is a legitimate and worthy news story, i.e. is the story in the public interest, or is the news organisation merely pandering to its audience’s desire for a salacious story? Many editors, and television producers especially, act under the premise that deception may be warranted when the story is of such importance that it absolutely must be told, and deception or undercover reporting is the only way to prove what is going on. The article about Lord Triesman combined his claims about match-fixing with an exposé of his illicit romance with Jacobs in 2008. Details of text messages sent between the two, and accounts of their secret dates were recounted. This aspect of the article is a blatant invasion of Triesman’s privacy, and is most certainly not in the public interest. It would also be against Kant’s Practical Imperative, which states that we should “act so that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in that of another, always as an end and never as a means only.” (Kant, ‘The Categorical Imperative’, in Singer, p.279). Individuals are ends in themselves, and “they may not be sacrificed or used for achieving of other ends without their consent.” (Robert Nozick, ‘The Rationality of Side Constraints’, in Singer, p.261). By publishing the juicy details of their affair alongside the quotes from Triesman about the match-fixing, the Mail on Sunday were using Lord Triesman as a means to an end, and also doing themselves a disservice by highlighting the sleazy element of undercover reporting.

Another fundamental question that journalists and editors must ask themselves is whether deception is the best way to uncover the story? In the case of Sarah Ferguson, I believe that based on other knowledge and evidence that they claim to have in their possession, the News of the World could have built the case against her without staging a fake bribe. However, in the case of the Lord Triesman article, there would have been no other way to find out his thoughts on match-fixing. Unless he was attempting to impress her in some way with empty rhetoric, there must be some foundation behind Triesman’s claims that Spain and Russia were engaging in bribery, which is in turn worthy of serious investigation and a matter of public interest, which has been reinforced by Fifa’s decision to carry out a full investigation of the matter.


It can thus be concluded that neither the News of the World article nor the Mail on Sunday article were handled in a manner that would have been acceptable from a consequentialist or a deontological viewpoint. Though I believe the subject matter of each (Sarah Ferguson’s propensity towards using her royal connections for corrupt means, and Lord Triesman’s claims of match-fixing) were indeed in the public interest, the deceptive means by which the end was achieved in each case were morally deplorable, and neither end justified the means. According to Kant’s Categorical Imperative, we should “act only according to the maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.” (Kant, ‘The Categorical Imperative, in Singer, p.274). The principle of universalisability is at the core of deontological theory. If active deception was to be universalised, trust, a central tenet upon which society rests, would crumble. Honesty is the moral virtue at the centre of any society, and it should be promoted by all as all stand to gain from it, as trust rests on truth, and trust is a social necessity. Impersonation and subterfuge irrevocably undermines the implicit trust that is so essential between journalists and their sources and interviewees. Undercover reporting disseminates a widespread distrust of journalists amongst the public, which is detrimental to the whole practice of journalism, which relies so heavily upon information received in confidence from that public.


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