Leading article: Exactly what journalism should be

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The Independent Online

In response to our exposé of how Britain's lobbying industry trades on claims of access to the heart of the Government, Lord Bell – one of the industry's most prominent figures and a former media adviser to Margaret Thatcher – has complained that our coverage was "an attempt by unethical, underhand deception to manufacture a story where none exists".

Regarding the substance of our articles, we are content to leave our readers to make their own judgements. But the contention that it is unethical ever to use undercover tactics to record individuals saying things that they would not say openly in an interview is one that cannot be allowed to pass.

Journalism is not a polite trade. It asks questions that people would rather not answer and it cannot always restrict itself to knocking on the front door.

This was about getting at the truth for entirely legitimate reasons – just as the Daily Telegraph did when it obtained the data revealing the truth about MPs fiddling expenses. Nobody could argue that this was not in the public interest. The same could be said of the Panorama reporter, masquerading as a social worker, who exposed the abuse of patients at the Winterbourne View care home. Or the Sunday Times team who revealed the corruption at Fifa.

This is no argument that the press should be above the law. Newspapers can, rightly, be prosecuted for what they do, and it is up to the courts to take a view on where the balance lies. Journalism is already in the dock over phone hacking. Doubtless Lord Justice Leveson will note the irony that without the press, the scandal would never have come to light. Regardless of his conclusions, the work of serious investigative journalists in exposing wrongdoing must not be constrained.

There are many measures used by the powerful to muzzle the press – from libel and employment laws to the Official Secrets Act. Serious discussion is needed on the difference between good and bad investigative journalism. But the boundary of acceptable practice is often determined not by the means used but by the nature of what is uncovered.

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* Lobbyists - full related links

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism
* thebureauinvestigates.com