Undercover ploys have overstayed their welcome

On The Press

Peter Cole
Sunday 19 February 2006 01:00

Once again, faces are po and "public interest" arguments are deployed. Once again, Buckingham Palace has been infiltrated. As the Queen presented honours to her subjects, including some for bravery during the 7 July suicide bomb outrages, those responsible for her security were wearily dealing with another reporter. The Daily Mirror was at it again.

Robert Stansfield, one of the paper's reporters, was at the palace for a royal household job interview when the police picked him up. Last month, Bethany Usher of the News of the World was arrested at the palace. She, too, had applied for a job, and was attending an interview. The Mirror said in a statement last Wednesday that Stansfield "was engaged in a legitimate journalistic enterprise on behalf of the Daily Mirror". The News of the World said last month that Usher "was engaged in a legitimate journalistic exercise investigating security at Buckingham Palace". The script does not change.

I have every sympathy with the Independent Security Commission which says, with barely concealed irritation, that these days, the most likely infiltration of the royal palaces comes from journalists trying to test security. In this climate of concern about terrorism, it is not surprising that they are annoyed at having to divert manpower to checksuspicious job applicants who turn out to be reporters.

The newspapers make out that they are performing a valuable public service - probably itself worthy of a gong. If the reporter gets the job, they have a front-page story. If the reporter is caught, the paper can hide its disappointment behind relief that security is working well.

It is lazy journalism and the more it is done, the more I yawn. Reporters find their way to airport aprons and maternity wards. They take replica guns through immigration. And they prove, from time to time, that security is not perfect. It should be. But is journalism really about trapping the authorities?

The most famous palace employee was Ryan Parry of the Daily Mirror who in 2003 got a job as a footman, had regular contact with the Queen and other royals, and took photographs in the palace. His two months undercover included the time leading up to the state visit of US President George Bush. The scale of his success won Parry an award, and guaranteed imitators. His operation was justifiable because what he exposed was so serious and indefensible.

The "fake sheikh", Mazher Mahmood of the News of the World, is the most famous entrapper, his most recent scalp being Sven Goran Eriksson. But he is used sparingly and his deception always leads to a damaging admission by his victim.

Sometimes going underground is legitimate. There is genuine public interest in exposing racism in the Manchester police, as the BBC did, or covertly recording a British National Party meeting. But the vital public interest defence that can be used to justify ignoring the Press Complaints Commission code of practice is undermined by stunt journalism that amounts to trying the same, tired old formula again and again.

Boris, Boris, Boris...

I do not know why I find it so irritating. Is it that it goes on and on and on? Is it that I cannot imagine what kind of editor would so regularly make his newspaper a laughing stock by publishing with such frequency articles by, or about - usually both - members of one family who, while talented, are no more so than many others? Boris is not even editor of The Spectator any more.

If a Johnson moves, the Telegraph writes about it. Boris does his column. So does sister Rachel. That's fine; it's when they write about themselves, and each other... Stanley, the father, does occasional pieces about adventures, full pages with large photographs, of him. Last week, Julia, the sister of Boris and Rachel, joined in. Julia has a band, we were told, and the email address was supplied, should we want to book it.

Julia had half a page, with four pictures, one large and sultry of her, others of Stanley, Boris, Rachel and siblings. The piece purported to be on competitive families - Antonia Fraser and Alan Coren were featured. In fact, it was just another opportunity for the Johnsons to celebrate themselves. Do Telegraph readers care? Do they wonder about the endless opportunity the paper's first family is given for self-promotion? And what editor would give it to them?

Peter Cole is professor of journalism at the University of Sheffield

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