So what is it like to be the subject of an under-cover journalist sting?

The answer is unpleasant. 

About three weeks ago out of the blue I received a phone call from a woman calling herself Claire Taylor, purporting to be from a Brussels-based public affairs company, called MJ Associates.  She said they were working with a client that wanted to understand the workings of Parliament better and could she discuss it further with me.  After an exchange of emails, I met her and the colleague she brought with her.  They asked about the consultancy and advisory work I do.  They told me they represented a Chinese retail company that wanted to expand its High Street presence but were concerned about the draft legislation on supplementary business rates.

They must have been disappointed that I specifically said I would not move amendments to a bill or ask Parliamentary Questions on behalf of any client, that I would not arrange introductions for them or their clients, nor would I make any representations on their behalf. 

However, they persisted and I told them I was happy to explain to people how the Parliamentary and political processes worked and the backgound to policies being supported by the major political parties, that I offered strategic (non-Parliamentary) advice to a number of organisations including to one or two overseas companies.   

I did not agree to do any work with them and said, if they wanted to pursue it further, they would have to put something in writing, so I could look at in detail and decide whether it was appropriate.  To be honest, I was slightly suspicious: they seemed rather naive and kept pushing me to offer to do things that, if they were genuinely who they said they were, they should have known were improper. 

I didn’t hear any more from them.  Finally, ten days later – last Friday morning, I got a call from The Sunday Times, saying that the people from MJ Associates were actually undercover reporters: the whole thing had been an attempt at entrapment.  And, of course, while I had made it clear, I would not do those things that would have been improper, a clever journalist can write a story full of hints and innuendo, taking what was said out of context and by only using selected parts of what was said create a sensational and damaging story. 

In the event, I was not named in yesterday’s Sunday Times story, but as I was one of those approached by the under-cover journalists in question, I have asked to appear before the Sub-Committee of the Committee of Privileges that will be looking into the issues raised by the Sunday Times story.  I am confident that I did not breach any of the House’s rules, nor did I offer to do so.  Nevertheless, as I was one of the subjects of the journalists’ deception and attempted entrapment, it is clearly important that the Sub-Committee have the opportunity to question me.

14 thoughts on “So what is it like to be the subject of an under-cover journalist sting?”

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  2. Sounds like a lucky escape. It seems that some of your noble colleagues are more foolish and more venal than you are

  3. The story is of course, about the four peers who are alleged to have offered their services to these reporters. It would be interesting to know how many other peers, like yourself, turned them down because what was suggested was inappropriate or plain wrong. If – as I suspect (and would like to believe!) – there are others like you who did the right thing, then that rather beggars the question why the Sunday Times did not indicate in its reporting that a number of peers – in tabloid undercover fashion – made their excuses and left. Perhaps because it rather undercut their central theme that the House of Lords is just as susceptible to cash lobbyists as the Commons.

  4. So you were not named, but you say refused to do anything untoward. It is pleasing to know that some of those that claim to represent the public are not looking for offers that will “Whet their appetite”.

    “They must have been disappointed that I specifically said I would not move amendments to a bill or ask Parliamentary Questions on behalf of any client, that I would not arrange introductions for them or their clients, nor would I make any representations on their behalf.”

    “In the event, I was not named in yesterday’s Sunday Times story”

    Unfortunately some of your colleagues appear to have been ready to accept the shilling – and have now been named.

    “A clever journalist can write a story full of hints and innuendo, taking what was said out of context and by only using selected parts of what was said create a sensational and damaging story”

    So why did they not do that with you, but did with your colleagues?

    The public have had the opportunity to listen to the tapes – the public are not fools.

  5. Thank you for this post. The thing we forget is the unpleasantness of the whole business, that journalists often care more for the scoop than whether they have made an entirely innocent person’s life or job incredibly stressful.

    Of course wrongdoing should be exposed, but it is also very disturbing that the Sunday Times deliberately set out to entrap by persuading people to do things they shouldn’t. I get the impression these people would be the first to shout ‘jump’ at someone standing at a window ledge but then publish the picture of the suicide hitting the ground. I don’t think the journalistic ‘profession’ comes out of this terribly well.

  6. Good news that you refused to do what you were asked as you knew it to be wrong. However, I’m less sure as to what I think of the implicit suggestion that the Sunday Tunes investigation was somehow inapropriate by labelling it “entrapment”. Surely the journalists have done the public by exposing this practice?

  7. Not sure I like your tone, Lord Harris.

    You seem to think the journalists – ‘hints and innuendo … deception … attempted entrapment’ are the unethical ones. What, so it’s not in the public interest to know that the legislature can be bought?

    It’s called journalism. That’s what they do. They were investigating reports – true reports, as it turns out – that peers were offering to bend the law for cash. Of course they went undercover – they can’t exactly phone you up and ask if the rumours are true. It was an excellent piece of journalism from an excellent team of journalists.

    So you declined to do something that was blatantly wrong. What do you want, a badge to sew on to your scout’s uniform? Surely a little integrity is the least we can expect.

    On the contrary, your decision not to condemn those who were named in the article smacks of moral cowardice.

  8. “I was one of the subjects of the journalists’ deception and attempted entrapment, it is clearly important that the Sub-Committee have the opportunity to question me.”

    I suspect your posting here and the statement is an attempt to place either a little space (clear red water ?) between yourself and your rather underwhelmingly unintelligent and seemingly greedy colleagues, or an attempt to turn the “guns” onto the journos involved.

    What this needs (and what it won’t get anywhere) is a full enquiry from outside the house of lords. Someone completely independent. The problem is that the “ruling” setup we have here is geared towards everyone in it protecting their own – we make banana republics look clean.

  9. So how do you feel, LORD Harris, that 4 of your colleagues are so openly CORRUPT?

    It’s NOT the journalists that we the public have to question, as Chris so rightly points out, ………………..it’s YOU and YOUR fellow Labour Lords.

    Sleaze & corruption are now firmly associated with the Labour Party and would appear to be endemic in it.

    That label will follow you ALL to your political grave.

  10. Stuart, the Sunday Times article does in fact say how many peers refused to play along – to be precise, six.

    They say that their undercover journalists approached ten peers – three tories, one Lib/Dem, one Ulster Unionist and five Labour.

    The three tories did not return their calls, the Lib/Dem and Ulster Unionist met them but declined to help, but the article says that four of the five Labour peers were willing to discuss ways to help the supposed client. Lord Toby Harris must presumably have been the fifth Labour peer they approached.

    Although he found it an unpleasant experience – which I entirely understand – Toby actually comes out of this well. But if the Sunday Times can substantiate their article, his four colleagues do not.

  11. Thing is Lord Harris, if your colleagues had all had your high moral values (I like the cut of your jib!) then there would have been no story for the journalists to write. They’d have binned it and gone and done another story.

  12. A cagey description of events that perhaps only serves to cast a dim and rather guilt ridden interpretation of the decisions taken, in similar circumstances, by your labour colleagues.

    In any other form of public service you’d probably all have been sacked by now. But, oh yes, Lords can’t be sacked. So you’re ok then.

  13. Investigative journalists would not be sniffing around if it wasn’t for the endemic corruption amongst the so-called “Great and the Good”.

    Taking money to influence legislation is corruption, and if these “vermin in ermine” were councillors on the Planning Committee of a local authority casting their votes for cash-filled brown envelopes, they would risk ending up in jail – they’d certainly have to resign.

    It is reassuring that you take the stance you do, but the sad truth is that many others cannot be trusted to rely on integrity where this simply does not exist, and there are no sanctions to persuade them otherwise.

    Simply put, why should the rest of us bother obeying principles of decency and integrity when MPs and peers do not? The only answer I can think of is self-respect.

  14. These undercover journalists should be made to deliver every scrap of tape they have and not just parts of the later incriminating tapes they have put out. Then we’d hear the full “grooming” process. We’d hear any clarifications and caveats from the solicited Lords and not just the cherry picked sound bites of guilt.

    I’m not saying that some Lords and some MPs are not venal. Look at Archer and consider Laidlaw and Ashcroft. But the Times has got a bit scummy these last few years. And I’m left wondering why they didn’t follow through and get some of the Lords actually signed up.

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