The Press Complaints Commission might be on its way out but it has done a service to British society by recognising there are times when journalists must go undercover to show us what we need to know about the secret machinations of our political system.
This is a fine adjudication – and not just because it finds in favour of The Independent’s decision to publish covertly-obtained details of the working methods of the lobbying company Bell Pottinger. This adjudication will give pause to those in power who might think their questionable activities are beyond the gaze of public scrutiny.
Much has happened since the Daily Telegraph’s 2009 exposé of MPs’ expenses claims provided a wake-up call to those in Westminster who thought they could escape being held to account. The phone-hacking scandal and evidence that has emerged at the recent Leveson inquiry have clearly damaged the press and weakened the claims of journalists that their use of devious methods must be allowed in the public interest. And last year the Telegraph had its knuckles rapped by the very same PCC for using subterfuge to expose Vince Cable’s views on Rupert Murdoch.
This time the Commission has rightly recognised the public interest in exposing a lobbying and public relations industry that has become immensely powerful – a factor Lord Justice Leveson should consider when pondering the problems of the news media in doing its job.
The misdemeanours of the lobbying and PR sectors that were uncovered might not be on the scale of phone hacking but, as Bell Pottinger staff admitted, this sector has its “dark arts” too.
The reporting of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism and The Independent shone a light on links between lobbyists and Government figures, and also revealed how spin doctors manipulate some of the everyday internet information tools – Google, Wikipedia – we have come to rely on.
The PCC saw the clear public interest in this. As Leveson prepares to define the future of press regulation, this is a poignant example of how the regulator’s work amounts to so much more than settling disputes between television entertainment stars and the paparazzi.