Disguises I Have Worn: Why Subterfuge Is Necessary for Investigative Journalism

There are times when a journalist has to lie to find out the truth...

Great Eastern Hotel, Glasgow

 

I've been following the Guardian's coverage of the News International phone-hacking scandal. While I think hacking a person's phone is criminal and should be treated as such, I disagree with the Guardian's apparent position that subterfuge should never be committed by journalists.

I've misrepresented myself several times: I dressed in rags and pretended to be homeless in order to get admitted to the Great Eastern Hotel in Glasgow, because I wanted to examine the conditions there. When I heard that a nursing home was neglecting its residents, I pretended that I had an elderly relative I wanted to find a place for.  I've gone on ride-along with cops who didn't know I was a journalist, because I wanted to report what they actually said when they didn't expect consequences. When Sheriff Joe Arpaio was acting as a "celebrity waiter" at a charity event, I went to the restaurant for dinner, pretending to be a tourist from Scotland, and asked him whether he was going to run for governor. There have been other such deceptions (these are only the ones that spring to mind right now) and the sad fact is that they are often necessary in matters of public interest. It should be exceptional, and a last resort, but as long as the privacy of individuals is not being violated, I see no ethical problem with it.