PCC upholds complaint against regional newspaper for undercover report on direct-selling scheme
The Press Complaints Commission has upheld a complaint under Clause 10 (Clandestine devices and subterfuge) of the Editors' Code of Practice against the Kent and Sussex Courier, after it published an article headlined "Saleswoman who targeted doctor's patients and poor is exposed".
The complainant was a receptionist in a local doctor's surgery, who also worked in the "multi level marketing sector" selling "wellness products". Having read an article in the newspaper about a woman who was experiencing financial hardship, she had approached the newspaper, via a representative, to suggest that she might be able to assist the woman with a new source of income. The woman had agreed to meet the complainant, but (unknown to the complainant), she was accompanied by an undercover reporter from the newspaper posing as her partner. At the meeting, the complainant - who was unaware she was being recorded - revealed that she had recommended her products to the surgery's patients.
The complainant argued that the use of subterfuge was unjustified: she had intended to help the woman, and the newspaper had made no attempt to investigate the issue through standard techniques. In its defence, the newspaper said it had been concerned about the woman being introduced to what it suspected was a scheme requiring her to commit a considerable amount of up-front funding. It said it wanted to know whether the complainant was "targeting" vulnerable individuals, and had decided that it could only investigate further by employing subterfuge.
The Commission acknowledged that the newspaper had acted with "praiseworthy" motives in trying to protect a vulnerable individual. However, the Code requires that the use of subterfuge can generally only be justified in the public interest and then only when the material cannot be obtained by other means. It emphasised that a decision to use subterfuge must be made on the basis of evidence rather than speculation. Although the material uncovered was clearly in the public interest, at the time at which the subterfuge was undertaken, there was no evidence that the complainant was involved in illegal or improper activity. The complaint was upheld on this basis.
Separate complaints under Clauses 1 (Accuracy) and 4 (Harassment) of the Editors' Code were not upheld.
Charlotte Dewar, Head of Complaints and Pre-publication Services said: "This case demonstrates how rigorously the Commission enforces the Code's stringent requirements regarding the use of subterfuge and other intrusive journalistic methods, even where they yield material that is clearly in the public interest. The Commission praised the newspaper's motives and its sense of responsibility towards a member of the local community but ultimately was not persuaded that it had been able to demonstrate, as the Code requires, that its methods had been properly considered in advance".
Notes to editors:
1. To read the adjudication (which has been published in this week's edition of the newspaper on page 6 and online), please click here.
2. Clause 10 (Clandestine devices and subterfuge) of the Editors' Code of Practice reads as follows:
*Clause 10 (Clandestine devices and subterfuge)
i) The press must not seek to obtain or publish material acquired by using hidden cameras or clandestine listening devices; or by intercepting private or mobile telephone calls, messages or emails; or by the unauthorised removal of documents or photographs; or by accessing digitally-held private information without consent.
ii) Engaging in misrepresentation or subterfuge, including by agents or intermediaries, can generally be justified only in the public interest and then only when the material cannot be obtained by other means.
* denotes that a public interest exception may be available.
3. Peter Wright, an editorial member of the Commission, took no part in the consideration of the complaint, and left the room when it was discussed. This is because he has declared an interest in all Northcliffe Media titles. The PCC's Register of Interests is available here.
4. For more information, please contact Jonathan Collett on 020 7438 1246, 07740 896 805 or email@example.com
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