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The lesson from the Bulgarian baby debacle is to keep careful notes about potential ‘stings’

The Only Way is Ethics: None of this is necessarily an exact science
  • @willjgore

“Undercover” journalism sounds rather glamorous. It tends to be anything but, at least until the recognition of the annual Press Awards comes around.

Pity, then, the Sunday Times’ Insight team, who last week found themselves at one end of a bizarre double-sting operation, with undercover Bulgarian journalists at the other. While the Sunday Times had set out to discover whether babies could be bought in Eastern Europe by wealthy Westerners, so the Bulgarian reporters had set out to uncover who were these people seemingly trying to buy children in their country. The results, as reported by Bulgarian television, are available for all to see on YouTube.

There are cynics who argue that the Sunday Times’s “sting” is unethical because it amounts to entrapment. Yet that ignores the research that takes place before any subterfuge begins. In this instance, the Sunday Times had apparently come across “lots of women in Bulgaria” who seemed willing to sell their babies or act as surrogates for cash. The “sting” was to test the theory.

When subterfuge is considered, there are two tests to be overcome before undercover work begins: first, are we sure the information cannot reasonably be gathered by more conventional methods; second, are there prima facie grounds for believing we will obtain material that is in the public interest to expose.

None of this is necessarily an exact science, which is why – especially in these post-Leveson days – it is vital to document the discussions that take place in the newsroom before an investigation is launched. It need not be a cumbersome process. But when it comes to making a decision about publication, it is helpful to know that all our ducks are in a row should we subsequently be required to defend our actions.

The Independent’s “Sponsor a Scholar” investigation in 2012 exposed a man who lured young women for sex in an “intimacy for tuition fees” scheme. From beginning to end, our team did things by the book and the result was a criminal exposed.

Another Independent investigation is in the pipeline, and the planning is fully documented. But as the Sunday Times found out last week, you never know exactly how it will work out.

Beware the ire of GoT fanbase

Spoiler alert! For those of you not in the know, the popular TV show Game of Thrones recently returned to British screens and last week’s episode proved quite a belter. But how much can we say about what happened?

Various reviews and follow-up items on the Independent’s website (including on the homepage, for all to see) were regarded by the show’s fan base as hideous spoilers. Being the grateful receiver of all complaints about our titles, I have variously been told I am a “dick”, an “asshole” and a “fuckwit” for our having ruined a key storyline.

Now, I’m fairly fond of a bit of GoT. I also – without wishing to sound snooty – can get over it if I happen to know the outcome of an episode in advance. Nonetheless, I have some sympathy for fans if a genuine spoiler appears without a warning (as one briefly did online) on the day that a show is to be aired or in immediate reviews. Yet beyond that, news outlets cannot continue to hide information in case people (like me) are waiting for the box-set to come out.

There is an oddity in all this. We live in a world where everyone expects to have news at the drop of a hat. Yet conversely, they also want to choose exactly when they consume it. Sometimes, these two desires are incompatible.

Will Gore is Deputy Managing Editor of The Independent, i, Independent on Sunday and the Evening Standard