Chequebook journalism takes a fall

23 May 2000 – We all remember the story: Chris Cotter, the white boyfriend of ace black athlete Aisha Hansen was set upon by a gang of thugs outside her house in Erdington, Birmingham, and suffered severe stab wounds. A clear case of racist violence – or so it seemed. The media went crazy; the story hit every front page in the land.

But that was two months ago. Now Mr Cotter, along with two other men, stands charged with perverting the course of justice and conspiracy to obtain financial gain by deception, by selling stories to newspapers. Hopefully there will be red faces among those who signed the cheques.

This is not the first example of newspapers being duped: remember the Sunday Times and the forged “Hitler Diaries”? Nor will it be the last. PressWise is aware of at least one other case waiting in the wings, and the deceptions will continue just so long as the practice of cheque-book journalism persists.

We accept that there are legitimate occasions when payments are made by editors in return for information. A blanket ban on chequebook journalism would put many quite legitimate journalistic practices at risk. It would be very difficult to devise appropriate legislation to outlaw abuses of the chequebook, especially since there will be conflicting views about which stories are ‘in the public interest’ and which are merely ‘of interest to the public’.

However, enticing people to supply ‘exclusive’ information with offers of large sums of money is a pernicious corruption of the notion of press freedom, especially since the primary purpose is usually to boost the circulation/profits of a newspaper. It also, as we have seen, leaves the press vulnerable to fraud – fraud upon their readers, who have a right to believe that they are being told the truth.

PressWise advises people NOT to sell the exclusive rights to their story, largely because few appreciate the longer-term consequences of such ‘deals’. They lose control of their lives and their image because they rarely retain the right to influence how the material is used or presented. Editorial control remains in the hands of the editor, and as a result many become ‘victims of press abuse’.

When a newspaper pays for an exclusive, rival publications seek to undermine it with ‘spoilers’. Little thought is given to the effect this can have on the ‘victim’. People who sell their story are regarded as ‘fair game’ in the circulation battles that ensue. Women in ‘kiss and sell’ stories often discover too late the risk of being branded for their actions; others are victimised because newspapers encourage informants to embellish the stories the papers want to buy.

Perhaps this is another field of journalistic ethics which ought to attract the attention of the Press Complaints Commission. Maybe Lord Wakeham could have one of his famous private chats with the proprietors? We all know they listen to him with rapt attention.

(Bulletin No 18)

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