There’s been a lot of focus over the past few months on the techniques used by journalists to get a story.
There’s is most definitely a valid discussion about what methods are justified and what aren’t and when certain activities are in the public interest and when they’re just interesting to the public.
Having worked in the BBC’s flagship Consumer Unit, which produces such stalwarts of public service broadcasting as Watchdog, I know for sure that there’s no way that many of the underhand, immoral and criminal activities that are exposed by the unit’s programmes could happen with some of the methods currently being condemned as part of the phone-hacking debate.
Yes, we taped phone calls.
Yes, we called people pretending to be someone else – now known as ‘blagging’.
Yes, we went on ‘fishing’ expeditions.
Yes, we used secret and hidden cameras to film undercover.
But we never did it without good reason.
We never did it without some lead or tip off from a member of the public, which we’d then investigated as far as possibly by conventional means.
And we were never allowed to film secretly without the editor of the Consumer Unit’s express written approval.
Being the BBC, to get this approval you needed to complete the inevitable ‘secret filming’ form.
And on this form, you had to provide justification of why you felt it was necessary to film undercover: suspicions of wrongdoing, proof that there was no other way to obtain the final piece of killer evidence, and most importantly why it was in the public interest.
And none of this was a formality. Without the evidence, your filming wouldn’t be signed off.
We certainly didn’t do undercover filming lightly. Arranging it was complex, time-consuming, expensive and risky.
You needed the kit, you needed someone who could pull off pretending to be someone else without letting the mask slip, and you needed a back up team in place in case it went wrong.
Even once we had our evidence in the can, nothing was ever broadcast without documentary proof to back up our filming, and without being ‘legalled’ to within an inch of its life.
The subjects of the filming would be presented with the allegations and the proof we had, and offered the right to respond (generally they said no, in no uncertain terms!)