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Do the ends justify the means in investigative reporting?

Members of the media stand outside the Leveson Inquiry at the High Court in London Nov. 21, 2011.

PAUL HACKETT/Reuters

Some subterfuge is necessary for investigative reporting, the Leveson inquiry in the U.K. was told this week. But how much subterfuge is acceptable to the public and when is it acceptable? Do readers care about the methods of reporting or just the results?

Some journalists will tell you they have used a bit of subterfuge. Perhaps it is as simple as asking a seemingly innocent question when they know the answer and they are trying to see if the person will tell the truth.

The inquiry into U.K. media ethics and practices headed by Lord Justice Leveson was set up to look into far more serious practices, such as phone hacking by private investigators working for newspapers.

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For years, many journalists at these papers had hacked into the voice mails or other aspects of the phones of sports figures and celebrities, including Hugh Grant and Heather Mills. But it was the hacking of a phone owned by a missing 13-year-old girl, Milly Dowler, that outraged the British public and brought down the tabloid News of the World. Her mother said that when she saw voice mails had been accessed, she believed her daughter had picked up the messages and was alive. Tragically, it was someone working for the tabloid NoW who listened to the messages. Milly was later found dead. (It's worth remembering here that phone hacking is illegal.) This is, of course, an extreme example which most people would say clearly went too far in both invading the privacy of the family and also in impeding the police investigation.

Still, there are examples of important outcomes with unorthodox reporting. Mark Stephens, a noted British libel lawyer and lawyer for Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, said recently at a conference at York University that there are cases where an invasion of privacy is warranted, but it has to be proportionate and it has to be the only method of gathering the information. He gave an example of a story where a prison governor, Russell Thorne, had sexual relations with prisoners and gave gifts in return for sexual favours. The story was uncovered as a result of phone hacking. In this case, do you think the tactics were justified to uncover criminality by a public official?

In 2009, The Daily Telegraph exposed expense account abuses by MPs, such as a $4,000 claim for cleaning the moat around one MP's castle; $11,300 for gardening and a helipad; a porn film; or, my favourite, $674 for horse manure. So how did they get this phenomenal scoop? Through a middleman, the journalists purchased a disc containing everything claimed by all MPs over the past four years. Did the value of the story in the public interest outweigh the journalistic allergy to paying for information?

As Mr. Stephens noted in his talk, the senior editors at any paper debating such tactics need to consider these unorthodox means of news gathering at two stages. First, ask if you believe there is potentially serious wrongdoing at the public level or criminality before you research, investigate and uncover. At that point, the next decision is whether to publish or broadcast.

David Walmsley, The Globe and Mail's managing editor, says: "There is a maxim for responsible reporting. When writing a story about an inquest, imagine the bereaved are reading over your shoulder. Behind the final product of what the reader sees is a series of often fast-paced, complex and case-sensitive decisions about the correct course to follow. As a rule, there are few things that will keep a journalist more reasoned and fair – the hallmarks of decent journalism – than the threat of being exposed as a cheap shot applying unethical behaviour that is unsupportable to the wider public. We take the ethical behaviour of our staff extremely seriously. Commissioning editors must apply a test on stories and hold their reporters to account. If the way in which a story was obtained and published was to be discussed publicly, would those staff involved in the endeavour leave the debate with their credibility intact? Anything less than a 'yes' fails the test and the story should die."

As David mentions, responsible reporting is key. It is good to remember the principle shaped by Canada's Supreme Court in a 2009 ruling that created the responsible journalism defence. While they were discussing libel and not news gathering, it is a good guideline to understand. Simply put, the court said an article or broadcast doesn't have to get everything right if it is an important story in the public interest. (I am oversimplifying a bit here). But that same principle can apply to investigative journalism. If an issue is in the public interest, not just interesting to the public, is it more acceptable to use unorthodox means to gather that information?

While we will protect our sources, should we be more transparent on our methods of news gathering? What are your views?

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Please comment below or e-mail me at publiceditor@globeandmail.com

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Public Editor

Sylvia Stead has been a reporter and editor at the Globe since 1975, after graduating from the University of Western Ontario in Journalism with a minor in Political Science. She won the Board of Governors Award there in 1974. As a reporter, Sylvia covered courts, education and Queen's Park. More

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