Opinion: Beware the fourth estate mole

The recent furore surrounding the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) was a sobering reminder that charities have now become a target for undercover reporting.

Earlier this month, it was approached by a Sunday Telegraph reporter who feigned a request to abort a 26 week-old foetus. When BPAS provided information about a clinic in Barcelona offering late-term abortions, the paper claimed the charity had breached the 1967 Abortion Act, which sets the legal limit at 24 weeks.

Regardless of the lawfulness of its actions (and it's still unclear whether the law was broken), it was certainly the charity's misfortune to have been set up. For 24 hours there was wall-to-wall coverage of the Sunday Telegraph's expose. The coverage will almost certainly have damaged BPAS's reputation. That's the trouble with trial by media: the sentence is meted out even before the final judgement has been passed.

Undercover methods have long been used by journalists to expose misdemeanours and malpractice. Recent high-profile targets have included the police (racism), the BNP (racism again), and even Buckingham Palace (security).

Now it appears charities are no longer exempt from this kind of secret scrutiny. No doubt this is a reflection of their increasingly significant role in society and of declining levels of public trust in them. With our ever-expanding appetite for sensationalist news stories and secretly filmed TV exposes, charities ought to be aware that they could be among the next set of 'victims'.

Particularly likely to be at risk are those charities that are dealing with highly sensitive and controversial issues. Given the vociferous anti-abortion lobby, BPAS was an obvious target. But there are others. Charities that work with drug abusers or asylum seekers, for example, may find themselves the target of undercover reporters simply because they are dealing with the kinds of issues that are manipulated to sell newspapers.

The BPAS experience is a salutary reminder to charities to be on their guard. Your next client could be an undercover journalist.

Lisa Harker is chair of the Daycare Trust, but writes in a personal capacity

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