This article is a cross-post from the Wardman Wire.
We have a new Cablegate, in which Vince Cable the Business Minster has revealed that he was not carrying out his quasi-Judicial role in a takeover bid by News Corporation objectively, in the presence of Daily Telegraph undercover reporters:
I have blocked it, using the powers that I have got. And they are legal powers that I have got. I can’t politicise it, but for the people who know what is happening, this is a big thing. His whole empire is now under attack. So there are things like that, that being in Government…All we can do in opposition is protest.”
There are two angles which interest me around the intrusion of covert reporting into the Constituency Surgeries of MPs. Firstly, whether the covert reporting done was justified in the context, and then whether there will be a significant political impact.
The PCC Code of Practice states:
(*) 10 Clandestine devices and subterfuge
i) The press must not seek to obtain or publish material acquired by using hidden cameras or clandestine listening devices; or by intercepting private or mobile telephone calls, messages or emails; or by the unauthorised removal of documents or photographs; or by accessing digitally-held private information without consent.
ii) Engaging in misrepresentation or subterfuge, including by agents or intermediaries, can generally be justified only in the public interest and then only when the material cannot be obtained by other means.
The public interest
There may be exceptions to the clauses marked * where they can be demonstrated to be in the public interest.
1. The public interest includes, but is not confined to:
i) Detecting or exposing crime or serious impropriety.
ii) Protecting public health and safety.
iii) Preventing the public from being misled by an action or statement of an
individual or organisation.
2. There is a public interest in freedom of expression itself.
3. Whenever the public interest is invoked, the PCC will require editors to demonstrate fully that they reasonably believed that publication, or journalistic activity undertaken with a view to publication, would be in the public interest.
4. The PCC will consider the extent to which material is already in the
public domain, or will become so.
5. In cases involving children under 16, editors must demonstrate an exceptional public interest to over-ride the normally paramount interest of the child.
Given that the story has resulted in Vince Cable’s political role being heavily limited, and exposing his bias in a decision where he is required to be objective, I’d suggest that the subterfuge is very probably justified.
Impact on Constituency Surgeries
Politics is buried in mass lobbying from single issue campaigns by email (ask the people who run the House of Commons EMail system), demonstrations, and the rest. In this, the Constituency Surgery had given MPs at least one foot partly in touch with the ground.
As far as I am aware, this is the first time that covert recording has been used in a Constituency Surgery seriously to embarrass an MP, and I hope that MPs won’t be tempted to become much more cautious.
… the Daily Telegraph’s lobby correspondents routinely hear what Liberal Democrat MPs are “really saying” about the Coalition. But because these conversations are on lobby terms, any criticisms will not be attributed to the MP in question.
but that therefore it was therefore necessary to record covertly somewhere else in order for direct ‘evidence’ to be obtained, and that this may form the thin end of a very long wedge. That “somewhere else” was the Constituency Surgery.
As a general rule, the constituency surgery of an MP should not be the place for secret recordings. That said, the confidentiality of the constituency surgery is there to protect the constituent, and not the MP (just as legal professional privilege is there to protect the client and not the lawyer). And so it is open for any constituent (real or supposed) to disclose what is said by an MP. So, on this basis, the Daily Telegraph’s secret recordings do not so far breach any grand political or legal principle.
However, there is some cause for concern. One suspects that the first use of interceptions of voicemails by tabloid reporters had a solid public interest basis; but it was quickly realised that such material was a rich seam to be mined just for trivial stories. Similarly, one hopes that newspapers do not now see constituency surgeries as “fair game”. The secret recording of a constituent would never be appropriate: there will always need to be a private space where a constituent can speak candidly to his or her Member of Parliament.
A variety of security measures would be available, ranging from verification of home addresses as being in the MP’s constituency to metal detectors and searches. Portable fingerprint scanners are now in use by the police routinely.
In a different context there was a conversation several years ago about whether the full Islamic veil was appropriate for an MP’s surgery, sparked off by Jack Straw.