Channel 4 has asked the broadcasting regulator, Ofcom, to investigate a cash-for-access sting on two former foreign secretaries after criticism over its reporting of the allegations.
The parliamentary commissioner for standards cleared Sir Malcolm Rifkind and Jack Straw, and said the damage done to the former MPs could have been avoided if Channel 4’s Dispatches and the Daily Telegraph had accurately reported the exchanges they had filmed.
The broadcaster has issued a defiant statement defending its journalism and took the unprecedented step of asking Ofcom to look at the case.
The move will put Channel 4 on a collision course with Straw, Rifkind and the parliamentary authorities, who have been quick to claim that the programme was the result of shoddy journalism.
David Cameron issued a statement through Downing Street welcoming the fact that “Sir Malcolm, and his family, can now put this distressing episode behind them”.
Insiders at Channel 4 maintain that it is in the public interest to expose politicians who are happy to use their positions for private gain.
Daniel Pearl, editor of Dispatches, said: “This programme raised important questions which concern voters about how senior politicians are able to use their public office for personal financial gain. This is a matter of public interest and was a legitimate journalistic investigation.
“We’re confident in our journalism and have decided to take the unprecedented step of inviting our statutory regulator Ofcom to investigate the report.”
The Independent Press Standards Organisation has its own rules about stings. You can’t just trawl around for dirt without reasonable cause for specific suspicion. (That’s why those same rules against trawling stung the Telegraph when Vince Cable was a victim a few years ago). And Ofcom - a statutory regulator, remember - has different rules again, which Channel 4 traditionally applies with added rigour. There has to be evidence-gathering in initial investigations: no trawling. Two exhaustive stages of form-filling - first for filming, then to secure permission to broadcast - must be completed through the production process. Two lawyers sit on top of it throughout. This isn’t the wild west, or an excuse to run wild around Westminster.
So here’s the rub. You can quite see why Rifkind and (especially) Straw felt themselves hard done by. You can understand why the MPs’ committee Hudson reports to clambered onto a high horse. But you can’t quite see why the film shown and the offers made weren’t assessed as multimedia, not just as print transcripts. Nor is it easy to understand a process where the ombudsman meets in person with aggrieved parliamentarians, but doesn’t seek personal appearances from the journalists involved. Seven years after the Telegraph’s revelations about MPs’ expenses, and 27 years after “Cash for Questions”, parliament is still doing its own regulatory thing. Channel 4 is right and feisty to take its case to Ofcom. Ipso, anxious to set standards as well as hear complaints, might prod the Telegraph to do likewise.