Subterfuge and public interest - 27 April 2001

Tower Green is 10-minute walk from where the reporter Mazher Mahmood works. Had the Wessex ‘sting’ occurred three centuries ago, one suspects he would have made his final appearance there as the law of treason was stretched to cover "masquerading as a foreign potentate" to justify the removal of his head.

Today the Press Complaints Commission exercises a rather less drastic jurisdiction over the conduct of investigative journalism. The Code of Practice decrees that journalists must not "generally" seek information by misrepresentation or subterfuge, and that this can be justified "only in the public interest and only when material cannot be obtained by other means".

In this case, the relevant "public interest" includes "preventing the public from being misled by some statement or action of an individual or organisation", and the code warns that the PCC will require "a full explanation" from editors to justify their actions under this provision.

In a world of intense competition, a PR company with royal cachet has a considerable advantage over its rivals. Every PR company needs to demonstrate its "Caesar’s wife respectability"; and if the truth is otherwise, it can be said that the public interest requires it to be made known.

In the case of the Countess of Wessex’s company, R-JH, whatever its high aspirations, the depths to which it would apparently sink were fathomless when it came to courting a wealthy client.

The "Sophie Tapes" showed that the gulf between image and actuality was huge, with the Countess making indiscreet revelations about the Royal Family, and her business partner alluding to his ability to procure drugs and sex for all tastes.

Thus it seems that that the public interest was properly served in this case. But it will not always be so. In common with the recently evolved extension of the law of qualified privilege, one sometimes has to apply a degree of "informed guesswork" as to what the truth really is; and with a fast-moving story there is often little time to carry out the detailed checks an investigation requires. In that event, publication becomes a test of editorial courage, determination and the strength of one’s own convictions.

Antony Whitaker is a consultant with City law firm Theodore Goddard

Anthony Whitaker

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