Lessons from the East?
Harlan Coben is so prolific a writer that you can get collections of his books now. I received about ten of his books a few Christmases ago and read most of them over the following few weeks before deciding to take a break. And then I was on the lookout for a new audiobook and the library had one of his books on CD. I’ve discovered that I can get close to an hour’s free reading time in the car to and from work every day, which starts to add up after a while, and is definitely an improvement on listening to the same news over and over again.
Let’s start with the story. A journalist is on the hunt for no-gooders and catches one in the act by pretending to be a fictitious girl online. Cue big story, picked up by all the other media, what a terrible thing the villain has done. And of course his life as he knew it is over, the media have judged and the public have condemned. But wait, maybe (there has to be a twist) the story wasn’t quite the one we thought it was and there was something else going on, something which put the journalist into a different light. And raising some ethical questions about the journalist’s own actions which aren’t easy to answer.
That description could be applied to Coben’s book Caught. But it also fits the case of a male journalist who pretended to be a 20-something female and contacted a number of MPs. One of whom sent some pictures of himself to ‘her’ which he now regrets doing. But he’s already resigned, been condemned by the public. But just a second. We will all have our own views on whether what the MP did was morally right, wrong or neutral. It wasn’t illegal though. And aside from the impact on his own family, which I think is a matter for them alone, does it have any bearing on his ability to serve as a MP? John F Kennedy had enough affairs, Clinton survived and has now been rehabilitated. Even John Major had an affair and is now regarded as an elder statesman. The list could go on, and that’s just the one theme (and of course there are others where the outcome was less positive). As far as I can see, this particular MP hadn’t spoken out against anything he himself was doing. And let’s ask one more question – of ourselves. A middle aged man, an attractive younger woman showing interest (and photos), the relative anonymity of the internet (I’ll cover Snowden and co another time). If we knew, or believed with a high degree of probability, that nobody would ever find out, would we all say no? A number of other MPs did. This one didn’t. Sounds like the population at large then, some people, maybe even most people, would say no and metaphorically walk away, some would give into the temptation. I think this is a question we can ask ourselves in so many cases. It is so easy to judge other people for what they have done. ‘We would have done it differently’ we say. Except that we as a whole haven’t got a great track record on that one. We know how ‘we’ behaved during the Third Reich – but ‘we’ wouldn’t have been like that, ‘we’ would have – what? Resisted when we knew we would be killed, and most likely our family with us. No, ‘we’ wouldn’t have, though some would have, as some in fact did.
We can easily forget that ‘to err is human’. If anyone has never done anything which they wouldn’t want to have on the front page of a newspaper, please let me know.
So, how about those ethics then?
Is it acceptable to pretend to be someone else not just to gain their trust but to encourage them to do something where your sole intention is to make it public? And to do so to a series of people where there is no evidence of previous similar ‘wrongdoing’? If it looks like fish, smells like fish and swims like a fish, you’ve been on a fishing trip.
Public interest defence? Where’s the public interest? Apart from the public’s prurient interest that is.
I had the privilege many years ago to speak with a number of journalists who had worked in East Germany and then in the reunited Germany. Two of the questions I asked them all were about working undercover and, separately, whether they found it acceptable to pretend to have a particular opinion in order to gain their trust (note the condition, it wasn’t to expose them in any way).
You can read much more about how they approached these questions in my book, but here are some of the things they said:
‘I think I would come up against my conscience at some point and say, my God, you’re lying to all these people.’
‘I am lying to the people. And that is exactly what I don’t want them to do to me.’
And finally, one journalist considered the deliberateness with which he would be engaging in this kind of activity:
‘If it is deliberate, conscious and applied with intent, in order to lead the other person astray and to break down his reserve, in my opinion that isn’t OK.’
The journalists in question had all worked in a country where there were very real limits placed on what they could write. They knew what it was to have the freedom to exercise their professional judgement because they had lacked that freedom for so many years previously.
In the UK, the media have had immense freedoms, rightly jealously protected, and in the main those freedoms have, I think, been used responsibly. We do love our irony as well though. The paper which had the original story on the MP (from a freelance journalist, so one could question the ethics of both the journalist – who was paid for the story – and the editor who paid for the story) had just admitted liability for some of its journalists having in the past hacked the phones of a range of celebrities. If it looks like a lack of ethics, reads like a lack of ethics…
It really could be from a Harlen Coben novel. And I know who I think the real baddies are in the true life story.