The Herald Sun has been caught red-handed trying to entrap Victorian MPs in an unethical and possibly illegal sting operation just days before the state election.

In a scam concocted by executives at the highest levels of the newspaper, Crikey can reveal that reporters, posing as members of the community, contacted Labor, Liberal and Greens members from fake Hotmail accounts in an attempt to snare them in a News of the World-style fit up.

Using the pseudonyms “Ross Harvey” and “Barry Robertson”, the paper emailed Greens MP Greg Barber twice on November 8 expressing concern over crime and offering to donate to his campaign. It was only when the subterfuge became clear that the newspaper admitted its involvement.

Harvey, a “elderly member of the community” stewing over mandatory sentencing, wrote about the “break down in standards in our society in terms of sentences handed out to those who commit violent crime.”

“I am of the view that mandatory sentencing is perhaps one solution, but I am very keen to meet with you to discuss the issue, especially this close to the state election.

“Is there a way I can organise a meeting with you? You can reach me at this email or on 0431 602 826 at any time.”

In a second email, the Robertson pseudonym was used in a botched attempt to lure MPs into accepting a donation.

“I would like to make a substantial donation to help you with your re-election campaign. However I would like to speak with you beforehand. Can you call me on 0451 966 208 to discuss the donation process?” it read.

The goal was apparently to covertly test the three major parties’ policies on donations and crime and to gauge response times. However, under Australian Journalism Association guidelines, reporters must give their full name and employer before interviewing any source for publication or broadcast.

The Greens have called for an end to political donations from developers, and for greater scrutiny over Victoria’s archaic disclosure processes.

Honorary party leader Barber outlined the sequence of events to Crikey:

“Basically what happened was that we got the email early in the morning and one of our team rang him back, and outlined the party’s policies on donations to the person that answered the phone.”

“And right after that the person says ‘ha ha ha, you’ve passed the test, yeah I’m actually Craig Binnie from the Herald Sun‘. And we were like, ‘well, that’s pretty f–ked’.

“So we rang up the paper the next morning and spoke to [chief of staff] Chris Tinkler and said ‘this is no good’ and he admitted it was a sanctioned operation, it wasn’t just some guy going off his own bat…but he didn’t really justify it.”

Barber said that in another instance a reporter, believed to be Binnie, had affected an elderly man’s voice under the guise of the crime complainant, but then switched to his normal voice when the ruse became clear.

“The emails were all from the same live.com.au account and once when we called the mobile someone else answered it and said he was not here at the moment…it was pretty amateur hour stuff.”

But the Greens were livid at the botched entrapment attempt, with upper house MP  Sue Pennicuik later “remonstrating” with Tinkler on the phone.

Crikey rang the mobile phone numbers listed in the emails, which both diverted to voicemail. In Ross Harvey’s case, the message sounded suspiciously like a young person pretending to be elderly (listen here).

The Liberal and Labor parties are also understood to have complained to the Herald Sun but for whatever reason have failed to admit it publicly. Labor sources refused to confirm whether they had received the emails.

None of the MPs contacted fell for the trap, and the story, scheduled to run last week, was swiftly spiked. Binnie is now said to be in the UK and couldn’t be contacted.

The paper’s controversial tactics mirror those of its UK sister publication, News of the World, in which reporters routinely pose as other people in order to secure scoops. Earlier this year, its investigations editor and “fake sheihk” Mazer Mahmood famously entrapped a string of Pakistani cricketers in a no-ball betting scandal.

Jonathan Este from Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance, told Crikey that the Herald Sun‘s tactics appeared to be in contravention of section 8 of the Australian Journalism Association code of ethics, which mandate that journalists must immediately identify themselves and use “use fair, responsible and honest means to obtain material”.

“I wonder sometimes whether this sort of deception doesn’t end up defeating the purpose, in that if an interview subject doesn’t know he or she is going on the record, they won’t give you a considered answer. There can be a great deal of difference between a throw-away comment made off-the-record and a considered reply.

“We urge journalists to always consider the code, which is one of the things that makes journalists what they are and establishes their credentials as professionals, rather than people that just trample over their subjects.”

Media ethicist Denis Muller, an Honorary Fellow in the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics at the University of Melbourne, slammed the botched News operation as “probably illegal and probably entrapment.”

“These sort of tactics are usually only used when all else fails and when there’s a high public interest in doing so. It’s certainly never justified as the initiating step in a story, you have to have a good reason to do it… it can’t be to set people up and see if they fall for it. It’s appalling.

“It’s only defensible as a large public interest, not just public curiosity, a reasonable suspicion that there was wrongdoing, no alternative way of getting the information. To just set it up on spec is absolutely indefensible.”

Muller said the breach of the code could now be investigated by judiciary committee of the MEAA, with the possibility that Binnie and other senior staffers could be expelled as Alliance members. The Press Council could also get involved if there was a written complaint to the Herald Sun‘s publisher, the Herald & Weekly Times.

Herald Sun editor Simon Pristel, chief-of-staff Chris Tinkler, HWT editor-in-chief Phil Gardner and Binnie did not respond to Crikey‘s request for comment before deadline.

Peter Fray

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