Last Friday, two cadet reporters masqueraded as beggars on the streets of Perth to obtain information for articles and pictures published in The West Australian yesterday and online.

In other words, the newspaper engaged in an act of deception, or, put simply, it told a lie.

And the public interest that was served by this lie? To tell its readers how generous they were in donating money to two young beggars. The “beggars” — Adrian Watson, 21, and Athanae Lucev, 25 — raised almost $150 in three hours. The money was later donated to charity.

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“City opens wallets to help our pair of ‘beggars'”, “WA people open hearts, purses” and “Real community spirit as a caring Perth shells out for acting beggar” read the various headlines on pages 1 and 10.

The pictures showed a young girl and an elderly many handing over money to the journalists.

Makes you wonder how those caring people felt yesterday when they read the paper, having donated their money to the journalists in good faith. Duped?

And, having been duped, those caring people might be a tad more reluctant to donate to genuine charities in the future.

Now journalists masquerading in other roles to obtain information is hardly innovative, and there have been Walkley award winners among them. But at least in all these cases, there was an arguable and demonstrable public interest factor. And no doubt The West would argue that the public interest was its motivation.

But for reporters to pose as beggars to raise $150 to show how generous Perth is? This is more akin to the stunt “journalism” practised on some television current affairs programs.

While it is arguable that the story breached the Australian Press Council’s principles, the Media Alliance is less than impressed with the prime facie breach of clause 8 of the Journalists’ Code of Ethics:

Use fair, responsible and honest means to obtain material. Identify yourself and your employer before obtaining any interview for publication or broadcast. Never exploit a person’s vulnerability or ignorance of media practice.

Alliance secretary Michael Sinclair-Jones:

As a former senior West journalist, I have a serious concern about the ethics of young reporters being directed to use deceptive conduct to concoct stories.

I doubt the use of such blatant deception meets the qualifying criterion of “substantial advancement of public interest” in the Journalists’ Code of Ethics. Such tactics should be used only as a last resort when there is clearly no other means available to obtain information of significant public importance.

Sinclair-Jones said factual information could have been obtained by conventional journalistic methods: observing beggars and donors and interviewing them afterwards.

“It’s disappointing that the new West management appears to be continuing the practice of sacked former editor Paul Armstrong to trick the public into providing trumped-up pictures and stories,” Sinclair-Jones said.

“It serves only to undermine the credibility of the newspaper and tarnish the reputation of the media as a source of genuine news.”

Whether these young journos came up with the masquerade idea themselves or whether they were directed to pose as beggars, wiser heads should have intervened to stop this deception.

West editor Brett McCarthy did not return calls inviting comment for this article

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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