By David Rose
Media Minister Dick Caborn leapt to the defence of investigative journalism this week when he rejected a call by George Galloway to clamp down on the activities of News of the World undercover investigator Mazher Mahmood.
The MP for Bethnal Green and Bow claimed in the House of Commons that Mahmood's conduct was "surely illegal" and amounted to an "abuse of press freedom".
But Caborn told him investigative journalists had "uncovered a great deal of crime and impropriety". And he said that although he understood "the anger and concern of those who find themselves on the receiving end of this sort of behaviour, and who have committed no crime or impropriety, that is part of the price that we pay for our independent press".
Using the protection of parliamentary privilege, the Respect MP had complained about the famous Dorchester dinner thrown by Mahmood in March which, Galloway said, was "intended to entrap me in a foreign funding scam" and the attempt by the News of the World to prevent him from publishing photographs of the "fake sheikh".
"Mahmood's behaviour toward me and many others who he did manage to deceive is not only reprehensible, but surely illegal, as Roy Greenslade has argued," he told Caborn.
When the minister asked Galloway whether he had taken his complaint to the Press Complaints Commission, the MP told him: "The reason so few people complain to the PCC is that it is not worth a pot of warm water.
"It has absolutely no effect on the gutter press of Rupert Murdoch and the News of the World. They laugh at it."
But Caborn defended the PCC and pointed to the code of conduct, which prohibited the use of clandestine devices and subterfuge.
"However, that clause has a public interest justification," said Caborn.
"Clandestine devices or subterfuge can be permissible if editors demonstrate that their use is in the public interest.
"We believe that if a journalist obtains a story or information by misrepresentation or subterfuge and an editor uses that story, he must satisfy himself that it is in the public interest, as he will be only too aware that he is likely to have to demonstrate that to the PCC or risk public censure."
Caborn told Galloway that complaints about the use of clandestine devices or subterfuge made up only 0.6 per cent of complaints to the PCC last year — just over 20 cases. "So it is fair to say the problem is not widespread," he added.
Galloway, again under the cloak of parliamentary privilege, accused "Daily Telegraph journalist David Blair and at least one of his superiors" of having "lied in the High Court during my libel action" and claimed that "a criminal conspiracy was hatched and executed between Baghdad and London against me".
Caborn said the Government strongly supported self-regulation of the press through the PCC. "We believe that the Government should not seek to intervene in any way in what a newspaper or magazine chooses to publish."