Something's bugging me
Vince Cable was sacked yesterday - not from the cabinet of course but from "all responsibility for competition and policy issues relating to media, broadcasting, digital and telecoms sectors" which will be transferred immediately to the secretary of state for culture, media and sport. He survived as secretary of state for (rather less) business (than before).
This, some will say, is vindication of the Telegraph's decision to send undercover reporters into MPs' offices posing as constituents to record what they heard. The public, they argue, has a right to know the private policy disagreements of those around the cabinet table. Besides, they may add, Vince Cable spoke candidly to two total strangers who could have called a paper with the story or written a blog post about it even if they weren't reporters themselves. I am not convinced.
Undercover reporting is legitimate, necessary indeed, to uncover wrongdoing. At the BBC a decision to carry hidden cameras or microphones requires high-level prior authorization and prima facie evidence of wrongdoing. It's been used with great effect to expose football hooligans, violent racists, fraudsters and the like. I know that the paper's executives considered the press complaints code and the law before deciding to proceed, but where was the evidence of wrongdoing amongst Liberal Democrat ministers which justified bugging them?
Be clear: the one thing the paper was not examining was the business secretary's attitude to the takeover of BSkyB. It was Vince Cable who raised the subject of BSkyB's bid, not the undercover reporters. It's now obvious why: Cable was the ally of the Telegraph which wants to block the advance of the Murdoch empire. The truth is they stumbled across a story which Robert Peston then scooped them on.
The paper's stated aim was to highlight the gap between ministers' private conversations and their public statements - in other words, to expose hypocrisy. This argument could have been used to justify the bugging of ministers in any government. Should reporters have bugged Gordon Brown to reveal his policy disagreements with Tony Blair or Liam Fox and David Cameron?
Now I should declare an interest. Political correspondents thrive on hearing, analysing and reporting on the gap between private and public statements. Save the Murdoch story, none of what Lib Dem ministers said in private comes as a surprise to me. I would suggest, however, that the idea that Lib Dems are worried about child benefit and housing cuts would not come as a surprise to anyone who follows politics.
Some might believe - in the spirit of Wikileaks - that it would be better for what some see as a cosy Westminster club to be smashed so that the public can hear everything for themselves. After all, they might argue, political journalism did not reveal the MPs' expenses scandal. It took a leak and the Telegraph's willingness to risk a political storm.
Here's why that argument doesn't convince me. Starting from today, politicians will be more wary about what they say to their own constituents, more suspicious of journalists and more keen to meet behind closed doors without the risk of microphones, cameras, prying eyes and straining ears. Candour will be less common, not more.
Sympathy with politicians is in short supply so perhaps the easiest way to think about this is to ask yourself this: how would you feel if that chat about a relative, a workmate or a boss at the water cooler, in the canteen or at the pub was secretly taped, transcribed and distributed in order to expose your hypocrisy?