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Newspaper rapped for use of subterfuge in undercover exposé

A weekly newspaper which exposed a saleswoman for using her position as a surgery receptionist to attract new customers has been rapped by the press watchdog for its undercover investigation.

The Press Complaints Commission upheld a complaint by Nicki McLellan that a reporter from the Kent & Sussex Courier had breached the Editors’ Code of Practice by obtaining information using subterfuge.

However, it rejected two further complaints by Ms McLellan relating to accuracy and harassment.

In its adjudication, the PCC agreed that the publication of the story had been in the public interest, but said this could not justify the initial decision to engage in subterfuge.

Commenting on the commission’s verdict, Kent and Sussex Courier editor Ian Read said: “We ran this story with the best of intentions and the PCC praised our motives and what we uncovered.

“While I’m disappointed with the adjudication I remain proud of this piece of investigative journalism carried out in the public interest.”

The article, headlined “Saleswoman who targeted doctor’s patients and poor is exposed” was published in August last year.

It revealed how someone representing Ms McLellan had contacted the paper after spotting a separate piece about a local woman experiencing financial hardship.

The representative said that they wanted to offer the woman a chance to make extra money. The woman agreed to meet Ms McLellan to discuss the offer, but was accompanied by a reporter from the newspaper, who posed as her partner and secretly recorded what was said.

Ms McLellan suggested the woman might like to join her in the “multi-level marketing sector” selling “wellness products”, giving a presentation about the company and describing how she used her role as a receptionist in a doctor’s surgery to meet potential customers.

Ms McLellan complained to the PCC that the use of subterfuge had been “wholly unjustified”, claiming she had acted with good intentions to help the woman find a new source of income.

The original story now carries a note warning readers of the PCC adjudication

In response, the newspaper explained that it has been concerned about the perceived danger to the “vulnerable” woman of becoming involved in a direct-selling scheme which involved significant initial financial outlay.

Editors decided that publishing the material was in the public interest, particularly in light of the revelation that Ms McLellan used her position in a doctor’s surgery to make sales.

The PCC’s judgment, which can be read in full here, said it accepted that the newspaper had acted with “praiseworthy motives” – but said subterfuge must only be employed on the basis of evidence, not speculation.

“It was clear that the investigation had uncovered material in the public interest. This could not, however, retrospectively justify the initial decision to engage in subterfuge,” it added.

The second complaint by Ms McLellan claimed that after the meeting, the reporter – who had informed her who  he was – had been “pushy” and e-mailed her a list of questions, despite her making it clear she did not wish to comment.

The newspaper said the purpose of the email, which acknowledged her desire not to comment, was to make Ms McLellan aware of the questions he had intended to ask and it had not requested a response.

The PCC rejected the complaint, stating this further contact was justified as an attempt not to publish inaccurate or misleading information.

The final issue raised, accusing the paper of breaching Clause 1 of the Code, which relates to accuracy, claimed that contrary to what the article stated, the surgery had been fully aware of her involvement in the “multi-level marketing sector”.

However, the paper had obtained a statement from the Primary Care Trust which revealed that while the surgery knew the complainant was involved in direct selling, it was unaware of her approaching patients about the products and was investigating the matter.

The PCC also rejected this complaint. The original story can be read in full here.

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  • February 22, 2013 at 4:25 pm

    The fact that even the PCC seem displeased with this adjudication shows just how ridiculous it is.
    They are clearly saying the Courier was right to expose this woman and the story was a classic case of public interest journalism. They are essentially saying “you were right but you didn’t know you were right before you proved you were right”.
    The precedent this sets is a worrying one. The PCC are essentially saying you need hard evidence of someone’s guilt before carrying out any form of subterfuge. Well, if the evidence was there then there would be no need for subterfuge.
    This is yet another example of post-Leveson hysteria at reporters doing anything more controversial than a vox pop. It will deter investigative journalism and allow crooks to operate with impunity. As long as they don’t release a press release about their dodgy dealings they’ll be fine. Good work PCC. We’ll miss you terribly.

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