An eager group of journalism students came through the Crikey office yesterday. They asked a lot of questions, but the one that left a lingering aftertaste for me was the one about ethics — specifically, to what extent should a journalist be prepared to compromise ethical standards in pursuit of a story?

A motherhood question, you might think, for any professional journalist for whom ethical behaviour is supposed to be a sine qua non.

But is it a sine qua non any more?

Was ethical behaviour the principle guiding the editors at the London Sunday Times earlier this month when they sent their reporters out to pose as lobbyists  in order to lure FIFA soccer officials into agreeing to take bribes to switch their votes for a city bidding to hold the World Cup?

Was it a consideration for the undercover investigative reporters at the News of The World when they planned their “sting” operations to trap a British snooker champion into discussing throwing a match, or to entrap a Pakistani cricket “fixer” to take the newspaper’s pile of cash?  Or when the same newspaper paid an intermediary to illegally tap the voicemail messages of hundreds of celebrities, politicians and members of the royal family?

In all these cases, and many more over recent years at places such as Today Tonight, A Current Affair and the News of The World, the key phrase is not “journalistic ethics”, it is “the end justifies the means”.

And when a respectable newspaper such as the Sunday Times uses that justification for journalistic tactics that would once have been regarded as entirely obnoxious in any news room, it becomes apparent that a new set of rules about journalistic behaviour are either being written, or are insinuating their way into mainstream editorial practice.

It may only take a few more cases of entrapment, that produce “good yarns” in the “public interest”, before the whole dark art of journalists impersonating other people, or journalists writing stories elicited from illegal telephone taps, before the end justifies the means in almost every news room.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey