The Bureau, Bell Pottinger, babies and bathwater

The Independent and The Bureau of Investigative Journalism are winning deserved praise for their exposé of lobbyists Bell Pottinger this morning.

Bureau journalists, posing as agents of the Uzbekistan government, recorded senior Bell Pottinger executives boasting of their access to government and media. Bell Pottinger has previously worked for regimes with dubious human rights records including the governments of Sri Lanka and Belarus. An excellent piece of work by all accounts, and the Independent and The Bureau promise more to follow.

Bell Pottinger has responded angrily. The Times reports that Lord Bell (chair of Bell Pottinger’s parent company Chime Communications) has taken the matter to the Press Complaints Commission, describing the covert recording as “unethical“.

It would be easy to dismiss this with a wry “Well he would, wouldn’t he?“, but as the Leveson Inquiry goes on, there appears to be more and more unease with the shadier methods of journalism, which include covert recording, and Lord Bell may be attempting to tap into this feeling.

It’s clear that being recorded without one’s knowledge isn’t very nice. But it’s also clear that the Bureau’s investigation is in the public interest, and this should be enough to justify it. Amid the furore over phone hacking, surveillance, blagging and the rest, we should be very careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. The murkier methods of the press have their place.