Ofcom has rejected a complaint made by former Cabinet Minister Peter Lilley, over an edition of Dispatches entitled ‘Politicians for Hire: Cashing in on Brexit’. The programme, broadcast in January included secret footage of three politicians including Mr Lilley as they met with representatives of a fictitious Chinese company to discuss taking a role on its board. Mr Lilley complained that the secret filming and broadcast were unwarranted, that the programme portrayed him unfairly, and that he had not been given an appropriate and timely opportunity to respond to the allegations.
At the point at which the footage was filmed, Mr Lilley had stepped down from the House of Commons and had not yet been made a Lord. However, he told the undercover reporters that he anticipated being made a Lord. He outlined his current involvement with politicians with responsibility for Brexit-related matters.
The programme made it clear that no Parliamentary rules had been broken but questioned whether the behaviour nonetheless fell short of what the public would expect.
The secret footage made it clear that Mr Lilley had said that he could not pass on secret information, The programme also included Mr Lilley’s response, which included the statement that he had not ‘undertaken any venture which would involve me breaking the codes of conduct reference, nor the Nolan principles…’ The Nolan principles are the ethical standards expected of public office holders. Mr Lilley had claimed that the simple fact of secret filming implied some sort of wrongdoing on his part: ‘by resorting to subterfuge, they imply there is a scandal where none exists.’ Ofcom rejected this analysis. Ofcom considered there was significant public interest in exploring interactions between politicians and commercial companies, and questioning whether it was appropriate for them to exploit their positions and connections for financial reward. It also took the view that there was sufficient prima facie evidence of a public interest story, and that Channel 4 had reasonable grounds to suspect that surreptitious filming would produce further evidence. Ofcom considered it unlikely Channel 4 could have captured footage or Mr Lilley speaking candidly without using secret filming. Overall the surreptitious filming was warranted.
Showing the footage enabled the audience to come to their own conclusions as to whether a politician behaving as Mr Lilley did was appropriate, and whether the current rules and codes of conduct are appropriate. Given this, Ofcom considered that the public interest in broadcasting outweighed the potential negative effect on Mr Lilley.
Ofcom also found that the programme was not unfair to Mr Lilley. It did not state that he had breached any rules or code of conduct, it questioned whether he had done anything wrong, and showing the footage would allow viewers to make up their own minds.
Mr Lilley also complained that Channel 4 had refused to provide him with the transcript before broadcast, and that he had not had sufficient opportunity to respond. Ofcom confirmed that there was no such requirement in the Code, and that Channel 4 had set out the key allegations and extracts from secret filming in correspondence with Mr Lilley and given him ample time and opportunity to respond.
Channel 4 set out its reasoning for undertaking secret filming in the programme. In doing so it referred to its own thorough internal procedures for considering and authorising this mode of filming.
UK Broadcasters require any proposal to secretly film to be submitted in writing and approved in advance. Once the footage is obtained programme makers will then need to be able to justify the public interest reasons for broadcasting it. For programme makers this can sometimes feel like a long-winded process but for the broadcaster it ensures there has been careful analysis that can later be relied upon in the event of an Ofcom complaint.