Undercover reporting and recording of a public relations firm was in the public interest, the Press Complaints Commission reported.
The PR firm, Bell Pottinger, complained that undercover taping of its executives giving advice for Uzbekistan’s image violated the PCC code and was sensational, misleading and unnecessary. But, the PCC found that while undercover recording was used, “a clear prima facie breach of” the PCC code, the story was in the public interest. The PCC noted that as Bell Pottinger complained, the report didn’t reveal any “serious impropriety.”
Reporters from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (BIJ) met with the PR firm as “‘clients’ seeking advice on a public relations strategy for the Uzbekistan government,” The Independent published the 2011 report and “took full editorial responsibility,” the PCC reported.
Press Gazette noted that BIJ reporters “approached ten companies,” and Bell Pottinger was one of five companies that “indicated that they might be prepared to work” with Uzbekistan. According to UK site The Drum, the journalists wanted to investigate “unsavoury relations between politicians and lobbyists.” The BIJ also outlined its investigation and processes in its own story on the PCC ruling here.
Some PR tricks the PCC’s adjudication outlined that the BIJ journalists wanted to highlight were “anonymously editing Wikipedia pages and altering search results.”
The Independent reported on the ruling, which it called “a victory for investigative journalism,” and highlighted the PCC’s calling the report as having “provided significant insight into the means employed by lobbyists to assist such clients, including the network of political contacts that would assist this process.”
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Further, the Independent reported that the BIJ’s Overton said that “During our undercover filming Bell Pottinger executives explained to us that one of the PR tools they used to attack news stories was to make an official complaint to the PCC. True to their word, Bell Pottinger went on the offensive following our exposé, claiming foul.”
In the PCC’s adjudication, it noted that Bell Pottinger had “offered to meet BIJ staff to discuss the story..but this offer had been declined.” However, the Independent said BIJ’s journalists were told by “four senior PR executives” at the firm wouldn’t go “on the record,” and wouldn’t own up to “dirty tricks,” so the journalists decided to go undercover.
According to the Drum, BIJ’s editor Iain Overton said “The PCC’s final ruling exonerates our journalism and reinforces that undercover filming, when done in the public interest, has an important role to play in exposing wrongdoings.”
We have written to Bell Pottinger seeking further comment and will update with any response.
We wrote earlier this month when the PCC ruled that The Sun’s undercover reporting at Dale Farm was OK because it was in the public interest.