'Telegraph' or 'Sleazygraph': the ethics, uses and results of covertly recorded conversation

Following the covert bugging of Vince Cable by two people sent by the Daily Telegraph to pose as constituents attending his surgery, the media has been making quite a meal of it.

Yesterday, Twitter was buzzing with gleeful journalists speculating about what Cable will or should do, what Cameron and/or Clegg will or should do, what Miliband will or should do, etc., etc., etc.

Among the scores of journalists and bloggers who'd been tweeting about it since the story broke (not to mention reporters on all the main TV news programmes), I'd only noticed one who, towards the end of the day, expressed any reservations at all about the way the Daily Telegraph had acquired the story, when Sue Llewellyn (@suellewellyn) dared to ask on Twitter (at 17.49) :

'Anyone else feel uneasy about the whole idea of secretly taping someone?'

To which I replied: 'Yes, I've been tweeting about it all day.'

Why the unease?
There are a number of reasons why I've risked 'coming out' as more sanctimonious than most Twitterers, bloggers and mainstream media journalists.

My initial reaction was that it hardly seemed news that politicians say things in private conversations that they wouldn't dream of saying in public. After all, has anyone ever come across any community, society or organisation where people don't spend quite a lot of time saying things behind the backs of other people that they wouldn't say to their faces?

Then, as the story gathered pace, I began to worry that no one else seemed to be in the least bit concerned about the implications of so-called 'quality' media outlets, from the Telegraph to the BBC, using covert bugging, publishing and broadcasting of private conversations as a perfectly acceptable way of gathering news (or should that be 'creating news').

It struck me as being at best unethical and at worst illegal.

Whatever temporary damage the 'sting' or 'honey-trap' (or whatever else you want to dress it up as) may have done to the reputations of Vince Cable and the coalition government, there remains a bigger question: what long-term damage has been done to the UK media, now that the supposedly 'quality' end of it regards it as perfectly normal and acceptable to operate with such a cavalier disregard for ethics and legality?

I have no idea what the answer will turn out to be, but do know that what we've witnessed over the past couple of days makes me shudder to think about it.

Why am I getting so worked up about it?
Since starting t0 tweet about this yesterday, I've been asked why I've been getting so worked up about it. I've even been accused of being motivated by a partisan desire to defend Vince Cable and the Liberal Democrats in their hour of need.

Nothing could be further from the truth - which actually goes back more than a decade before the LibDems had come into being to a time when wrestling with the ethics of covertly recording conversations was part of my everyday life.

Much of the data on which conversation analysis was built derived from tape-recorded phone calls. The late Harvey Sacks, one of the founders of the approach, set the ball rolling with a PhD at Berkeley that was based on tape-recorded phone calls to a suicide prevention agency (in which the callers were almost certainly completely unaware that their conversations were being recorded).

Research by two of the other foundational figures, Gail Jefferson and Emanuel Schegloff, as well as that by scores of investigators since, also depended, at least in part, on covertly recorded conversations.

The methodological challenge
The reason why covert recording was considered important was that a central objective of conversation analysts was to establish a rigorous method for observing 'naturally occurring' interaction - rather than relying on answers to questionnaires (e.g. sociology), artificially contrived experiments (e.g. psychology) or invented sentences (e.g. linguistics).

If people were warned in advance that their conversations were being recorded, so the argument went, it might influence or distort the way they spoke, therefore disqualifying the resulting tapes as pure 'naturally occurring' data.

But I know of no one who ever embarked on such work who did so lightly or with devious motives in mind. I don't know of anyone in the field who has not spent endless hours thinking and talking and worrying about the ethical dilemmas confronting us. Nor do I know of anyone who has ever breached the fundamental confidentiality of the taped conversations, let alone anyone who has ever betrayed, damaged or exploited any of the speakers involved in order to benefit themselves.

Scientific and public interest as legitimate defences?
I am certain that the analysis of covertly recorded data was at the heart of some major advances in our understanding of how conversation works.

But I do still have occasional doubts about whether 'scientific' interest really was and is a legitimate defence for what so many of us have done. I also remember a sense of relief from any such worries when I first started studying recordings of political speeches - which had the advantage of already being in the public domain.

Had anyone at the Daily Telegraph or the BBC suffered from similar worries, it would be nice to think that they would never have collected or used such ethically troublesome data in the way that they did.

The depressing thing is that I don't think any of them can have cared enough about the ethics (or legality) of what they were doing to have given such matters a second thought. Nor do I think they can have given much thought to the new standards of media reporting that they were helping to establish as 'normal'.

As for whether the media's 'public interest' defence is any less valid than the 'scientific defence' of conversation analyis is, of course, for others to decide.

At this stage, all I'd say by way of mitigation is that I don't know any conversation analyst who has ever been guilty of either betraying the confidentiality of those being recorded, or of exposing or exploiting anything they might have said for personal or commercial gain.


  1. There are certainly occasions on which covert recording is justified. We've all seen exposures of old people's homes where abuse was taking place and other 'rogue trader' style incidents in which the media has alerted the public to the possibility of swindle, by showing people what's happening when people don't know they're being filmed.

    But on this occasion I have a lot of sympathy with what you say. Cable didn't stand for election on Tory policies so it's no surprise he's not entirely in favour of them. The only real story here is that he's unwise enough to confide his fears and reservations in complete strangers rather than just close colleagues.

    It's not terribly substantial, is it? Unless he was specifically planning to singlehandedly bring an elected Government down, which *would* be in the public interest, I can't see how the covert nature of this story is justified.

  2. Very informative!

    Before the Murdoch leak, I said to a friend "I dont see how this is news" and he said "Oh, the Telegraph have a big investigative team". So what were they investigating? Where was the crime? Seems to me that the same people who are against Wikileaks on the grounds of right to privacy are supporting the Telegraph on the gounds of freedom of the press!

    I am greatly concerned that an MP cannot have a conversation with constituents (planted in this case) without it being leaked. Even when he said "I don't expect you to quote me on this" which I guess means it's "off the record".

    It seems to me (per Julia Hartley-Brewer's embarrasing appearance on Have I Got News For You) that the press do not understand who coalitions are suppost to work.

    Cable was foolish and indiscreet but I hope more focus is brought to bear in the next few days on whether this was legal (or even ethical).


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