Media: Should the honey trap be snapped shut?: Papers often pay for news and sometimes use entrapment. Maggie Brown and Michael Leapman ponder the ethics

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The Independent Online
The Gloucester killings and the kiss-and-tell revelations of Bienvenida Buck have thrown the spotlight on two key questions. Should the press pay for news and should newspapers use entrapment to obtain crucial confirmation about a story otherwise impossible to verify?

The 'honey trap' laid by the News of the World, with journalists and photographers secretly recording Lady Buck's meeting with the former chief of defence staff, Sir Peter Harding, at London's Dorchester Hotel, is to be discussed at next week's meeting of the Press Complaints Commission.

Concern has risen because the second tranche of revelations, published last Sunday, seemed little more than a one-sided description of sexual antics, with scant relevance to the defence of the realm: the public may find them interesting but that in itself is not public interest justification.

Peter Preston, editor of the Guardian, and a member of the PCC's code committee, says entrapment is something that should be looked at: there is no specific clause relating to it in the code.

Mr Preston pointed out that the use by newspapers of entrapment is rare: before the current example it was used in 1986 by the News of the World when Jeffrey Archer authorised payment to a prostitute. The Times in 1969 was criticised for secretly taping a policeman negotiating illicit payments from a criminal.

Roy Greenslade, former editor of the Daily Mirror, says that he has become increasingly shocked by tabloid practices. There was no public interest justification in sending a woman to entrap Sir Peter: if a man of his position had been acting in a manner detrimental to the security of the realm, a newspaper had a duty to inform the authorities.

The second question is at what level a proper reward for service and effort turns into chequebook journalism. In Gloucester the issue was whether people should be paid for their recollections - and pictures - of Mr and Mrs West. With Lady Buck it was whether the pounds 175,000 paid to her (with a proportion going to her agent, Max Clifford) was a breach of ethics.

The technical answer is that neither case violated the code of conduct of the Press Complaints Commission, which bars payments only to criminals or their relatives on the grounds that they should not be allowed to benefit from their misdeeds. The ban extends to witnesses or potential witnesses in criminal cases, where payments could pervert the course of justice.

Hugh Stephenson, Professor of Journalism at City University in London, believes it would be impracticable to enforce any ban that goes beyond the code of conduct.

'I really don't see what the indignation is about,' he said of the two recent cases. 'I don't see why it should come as a shock to the British public that people are paid for stories. Everybody else in journalism is paid. If people ring a news desk with a tip, they get paid for it. It isn't as if anyone bribed Lady Buck to tell her story: she went to them with it.

'There are double standards here. Nobody said it was wrong to pay Alan Clark for his memoirs in which he named several women he had had affairs with. Is it all right to take money from a book publisher but not from a newspaper? Is it right for public men to write about their mistresses but not for mistresses to write about the public men?'

Graham Glen, editor of the Gloucestershire Citizen, is equally reluctant to condemn payments to news sources, but he points to a possible practical problem for his newspaper arising from the competition among the national papers for information about the Wests.

'I'm not going to jump on to a high moral platform,' he says, 'but my worry is about what the local legacy will be when the nationals have gone away. People have been lining up to sell tales about the Wests to the nationals. Will that raise expectations that they will always be paid for information?'

While Mr Glen cannot match the money being flashed around by national papers, he did make use of one weapon open to him: when a national wanted to advertise in the Citizen for information, he turned the request down.