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Who is more reprehensible – The Duchess of York or the fake sheikh of the News of the Screws?

2010 May 28
by Paul Vallely

Who is more reprehensible – the silly venal Duchess of York or the tabloid journalist who offered her $40,000 in used dollar bills to arrange for a “businessman” to have access to her divorced husband in return for a staggering half a million pounds?

This is not the kind of question which journalists are supposed to ask out loud. The party line is that this kind of entrapment is a legitimate way of uncovering wrongdoing in the public interest. If public figures behaved with propriety in private there would be no story for the undercover reporter to serve up.

I am not so sure. We would not, in our personal lives, endorse the idea of entrapment. It is underhand and sneaky. To deceive to expose deceit is a bit like fighting for peace; sometimes it may be necessary, but it is fraught with ambiguity and even hypocrisy. So when is deception permissible?

When the deceit exposed is bigger than the one perpetrated, a utilitarian would reply. Then the end justifies the means. It is about the lesser of evils.

That is why there was such widespread unease when the Mail of Sunday last week entrapped the Football Association chairman, Lord Triesman, reporting his private remarks that Spain and Russia are planning to bribe referees in this summer’s World Cup. Many people – including Gary Lineker who withdrew his weekly column from the paper in protest – felt that the story which resulted was not in the public interest. Indeed, by damaging the chances that England would be allowed to stage the 2018 tournament, it was quite the opposite. The economic benefits of staging the next World Cup here had been sacrificed for a bit of circulation-boosting titillation.

There was another element which added to the dubiety: personal betrayal. Lord Triesman had been exposed by a miked-up dinner companion with whom he had once had a fling and to whom he had recently texted “kisses all over”. His guard was down because he thought it a private conversation over a flirtatious dinner.

The Duchess of York had no such excuse. She was not miked up by a friend so much as set up by a stranger, Mazher Mahmood, the self-styled “fake sheikh” News of the World reporter who specialises in entrapment. The worldly-wise would be well advised to check out his photograph on Google, which clearly the dim Duchess did not – even though she kept jocularly asking: “You’re not from the News of the World are you?”

Journalists who encourage their victims to say or do things which they would not otherwise do without suggestions from the reporter are acting, in effect, like an agent provocateur. Indeed some might say producing a briefcase full of dollar bills is an attempt at bribery. Of course the duchess should not have accepted the money; but a journalist who does it can hardly claim the moral high ground.

There are other issues. Where the Mail on Sunday did not apparently care whether it was damaging England’s 2018 World Cup bid, Mr Mahmood’s employer, Rupert Murdoch, is known to have a republican agenda. Tainting the Duke of York, and the royal family more generally, by association, may well have induced a bit of chortling in Murdoch Towers. Had the Duchess then been driven to some act of desperation, that would simply have given the Murdoch tabloids another story.

There is something seedy and squalid about the journalistic tendency to search for the feet of clay in our public figures. The business world is full of frauds and cheats who are far more worthy of Mr Mahmood’s attention. The Mail on Sunday would have done far greater public service to had it gone on to uncover bribery among Russian or Spanish referees instead of punishing the man who provided them with the tip on a possible story. But such investigations would be harder and more expensive. Who guards the guards? No-one except the circulation manager.

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