Bad behaviour: the ethics of journalistic entrapment

If journalists condemn parliamentarians for dishonesty, why should they not also be held accountable to exactly the same standards themselves?

As another parliamentary scandal sinks into the public consciousness, the over-riding impression we are left with once again is of corrupt, untrustworthy MPs and Lords with their snouts in the trough.

But let’s just think for a moment... Is there slightly more to this than at first meets the eye?

Over the last couple of weeks there has been a succession of stories from both newspapers and TV programmes alleging that various MPs and peers have breached Parliamentary regulations on lobbying. The accusations are serious – and, if true, certainly cannot be condoned in any way.

There has been much hand-wringing by commentators, extensive media coverage, congratulation of the journalists who had brought this shameful state of affairs to light, and a reinforcement of the general and pervasive public perception that members of both Houses of Parliament are quite often completely corrupt.

But before we rush with the crowd to condemn, let us first of all remember that all those involved have denied any wrong-doing and referred themselves to the relevant authorities for further investigation. So let us await the outcome of those properly-constituted inquiries because even Parliamentarians are still innocent until proven guilty through due process.

And, as has been stated already, if any or all of them have broken the rules, then this is entirely reprehensible and cannot be justified in any way whatsoever.

But there is a deeper issue here which – funnily enough – has not been raised in the media frenzy surrounding the issue. And that is the ethics of journalistic entrapment. The question boils down to this: if dishonesty among Parliamentarians is to be deplored, is it any more acceptable for members of the media to be equally dishonest in seeking to catch them out?

Let us remember that, according to all accounts, the TV and newspaper reporters here were not investigating previously-existing wrongdoings. Instead, they were setting out under a cover of deception to test and tempt politicians into doing wrong – in other words, to incite a breach of Parliamentary rules. And so to do this, the journalists created fake identities and false organisations which they then pretended to be representing.

We can all understand that there are some situations in which “sting” operations are legitimate: for example, when the police and security services have masqueraded as arms dealers in order to trap terrorists who were seeking to procure weapons. But in those cases, by contrast, the aim was to intercept and expose a crime which was already underway: the terrorists were already looking to get hold of arms and the police were effectively looking to head them off at the pass.

In this particular situation, on the other hand, journalists wove a web of deceit in order to create a scandal – rather than to expose a pre-existing one. But if abuse of Parliamentary rules really is widespread, then why aren’t reporters using their time and energy to uncover real abuses – instead of having to manufacture them?

There may be some ethical situations where falsehood is justifiable. But such occasions are exceptional.

In the story of the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve are held accountable for the wrong they have done. But, interestingly, the serpent that entices and lures them to sin is also condemned – indeed cursed – by God for its actions in deceiving them. If journalists condemn Parliamentarians for dishonesty, why should they not also be held accountable to exactly the same standards of truthfulness and integrity themselves?

*David Baker worked as a daily newspaper journalist focusing on political reporting before becoming a Church of England minister. He currently serves three churches in Sussex.