The Edge

Richard Northedge takes on corporate finance

Fergie stings expose fools, not villains

Another weekend and another tabloid sting.

The Duchess of York is caught by the same trap that felled Lord Treisman and which awaits a real businessman to join them. But even if newspapers cannot differentiate between a set-up and an exposure, the public should.

It is one thing to use entrapment to reveal unethical practices. It is quite another thing for a newspaper to encourage the victim to make a fool of themselves.

There is no sign that the chairman of the Football Association was publicly accusing England’s rivals to host the World Cup of fixing match results until provoked to utter fantastical thoughts by someone pretending to be a close friend. There is no allegation that Sarah Ferguson has accepted cash to give businessmen access to her former husband, Prince Andrew, before a Sunday newspaper reporter created the situation.

A perfect person would not have lapsed even when temptation was placed before them but who knows what any of us would do if offered ridiculous sums of money, especially if we were not being asked to do anything unethical, nevermind illegal – simply to embarrass ourselves by, say, expounding wild theories about foreign football teams?

And it is the ridiculousness of the sums that can make these situations so artificial. There are things we would refuse to do for £5,000 that we might consider doing for £500,000 – yet the only people daft enough to offer such a high sum would be a tabloid editor after a story and with no intention of completing the bargain once he had the incriminating evidence on tape.

It is legitimate reporting to check that someone is acting wrongly by disguising a reporter as a participant in a scam. Wiring up a youngster to buy booze from a retailer regularly supplying under-age drinks would be acceptable, for instance, or filming a reporter discussing buying planning consents from a corrupt councillor, especially if the politician admits to past bribes. Recording a middle-manager proposing a price-fixing cartel can be firmly in the public interest.

But it is questionable, at best, to show that an upright citizen can be fallible if offered enough. Any businessman sufficiently curious to listen to what bent rivals or suppliers are offering could be caught in such a trap. This is more akin to the territory exploited by Ali G, Chris Morris or Jeremy Beadle – setting up innocent citizens to test their gullibility by encouraging them to do silly things. And it is thus better classed as entertainment than journalism.

It happens that the tabloids typically chose the sort of victim the public is happy to see take a pratfall. Readers are so pleased to see the arrogant or outspoken brought down to size that they do not analyse the method of their downfall or the irony of using unethical practices to expose potentially unethical behaviour.

Expecting editors greedy for a scoop to differentiate between reporting the news and creating the news may be too much to ask, but the public ought to question whether bad behaviour is being exposed or if they are just watching the naive be exploited.

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