Fergie's royal humiliation

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 25, 2010; 6:50 AM

It is stunning video footage, one of the world's most famous women offering, in no uncertain terms, to sell access to her royal ex-husband.

But does it justify journalistic deception?

The News of the World scored big with its sting against Sarah Ferguson, who appears a sad and pathetic figure as she names her price: 500,000 pounds. The Duchess of York was caught so red-handed that she made no attempt to spin her way out of the mess, merely saying she was sorry for the serious lapse in judgment and is in a stressful financial situation.

She must miss that Weight Watchers contract. And Prince Andrew must wish his ex had found a more respectable way to support herself than claiming she could open doors at the top of the British government.

Still, in order to nail that story, the Murdoch tabloid engaged in--well, the technical term is lying. The paper's "Fake Sheik" reporter impersonated a businessman who wanted to do business with Prince Andrew. The alleged sheikh had $40,000 in cash ready to convince Fergie of his seriousness.

A News of the World spokesman told me there was a "legitimate public interest" in mounting the undercover operation, and it's true that this type of journalism is more common in Britain than in the States. The practice's popularity peaked here in the 1970s, when the Chicago Sun-Times famously ran the bribe-taking Mirage bar, and 1980s, when "60 Minutes" used it quite a bit. From time to time, American journalists still trot out the hidden cameras (NBC's "To Catch a Predator") and use phony identities (ABC placed undercover deli clerks in a Food Lion, which won $5.5 million in a lawsuit only to see the judgment knocked down to $2).

It's always tempting to say the end justifies the means. But to adopt that position, you have to be willing to say that it's okay for a reporter to pretend to be someone else because he or she has decided a particular story is worth it.

The most recent uproar over false identities and hidden cameras on this side of the Atlantic was, of course, the 2009 ACORN case. Two conservative activists, James O'Keefe and Hannah Giles, said they were acting as journalists when they posed as pimp and prostitute (though it later emerged that they didn't seem to be wearing the preposterous getups when they entered the ACORN offices). Their expose of ACORN staffers appearing willing to help find housing for teenage prostitutes devastated the organization and was cheered by much of the right. But it, too, was built on a lie and edited video (the News of the World posted only 4-1/2 minutes of the Ferguson transaction). So if you had qualms about the anti-ACORN tactics, those same qualms should apply to these anti-duchess tactics.

In the Independent, Stephen Glover wrestles with the ethics and ultimately approves of the tabloid's probe:

"No one seems very aerated about the News Of The World's entrapment of 'Fergie.' The general view is that she, and probably her former husband, had it coming to them. . . .

"Perhaps it would be more grown-up to work out what we think about entrapment as a journalistic device. In normal life nice people do not try to entrap one another.

"It is sneaky and underhand. But journalists for these purposes are not particularly nice people and neither, often, are the people they entrap. You cannot easily encourage a person to say or do something out of character, though one can imagine exceptions where extreme pressure might be put on someone."

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