Why I broke the law

Investigative journalist Tessa Mayes bought heroin from a drug cartel and faked an ID to get hired in a brothel – because the stories were worth it.

Tessa Mayes

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The first time I broke the law as a journalist it was intentional. I bought heroin from an international drug cartel, posing undercover as the wife of a major drugs dealer. I was knowingly dealing in Class A drugs. This is potentially illegal under The Misuse of Drugs Act 1971.

Was it worth it? The investigative team wanted the story to show the unusual methods used by drug cartels operating in the UK. We considered this in the public interest and also a great crime story for television viewers. The drugs were brought in to the UK and sold through a popular international restaurant chain. The ringleader who sold me a drug sample was the restaurant manager. His gang members were waiters.

I was hired to report on this crime story by a television company. In practice, I was also being hired potentially to break the law, although nowhere was this stated in my contract. To be fair, the television company got rid of the heroin which is a defence from prosecution under the drugs act.

I wasn’t aware of this at the time. I knew I was doing something potentially illegal but thought the story was worth it. Ultimately, journalists are responsible for their own actions; something you quickly realise when the police show up to ask you questions.

As a freelance journalist you have to make your own judgements and be prepared to take risks. Often you come under a lot of pressures from employers and clients. In the end, it’s you who could get locked up. In this case, knowing I could face prosecution, I weighed up the risk to my safety (the drug cartel were known to be violent) and the public interest in telling the story. I chose to report it.

For another story I invented a false identity. I decided to work undercover in brothels. I was reporting on the pressures on young illegal immigrants to work in London ‘saunas’ and private flats as prostitutes. They needed cash to pay back traffickers, support their families back home or simply make their own fortune. As illegal immigrants they had no opportunity to work legally.

To convince the brothel madams to hire me, I needed a new identity. I falsified a gas bill and used a fake address in south London. I knew I might need the fake ID to cement my relationship with my new employers; this was a way of showing I trusted them with my ‘real’ name and identity and that they could trust me. The fake ID was a prop to ensure I would get the story.

Journalists constantly have to balance how far they go in breaking the rules and if the story is worth it. You have to consider how other people will react to your story. Even if the madam found out my ID was fake, what could she do about it? After all, her own work was illegal. Would she run to the police and invite state scrutiny of her business? Unlikely.

But what if I had used a fake ID to get access to the bank statements of a politician whom I suspected of accepting cash bribes from terrorists? Should I be condemned for invading the privacy of an elected member of parliament or should I be praised as a responsible investigative journalist? Or perhaps both?

When breaking the law for a story that exposes how others broke the law, journalists can appear to be hypocritical. For example an investigative journalist told me he once paid for a fake passport to facilitate his work in international crime reporting. This is illegal. Another journalist showed me phone bills he received from a source who had gained them illegally. The phone records proved that criminal ‘A’ had been talking regularly to criminal ‘B’. The criminal gang members were arrested by the police.

However, journalists are not hypocrites. They are not claiming to be saints. They are not elected MPs bound by certain rules and whose actions should be accountable. They are just hacks doing a job, albeit with powerful repercussions for people’s lives and reputations. If the story doesn’t seem worth it, law-breaking journalist are likely to end up in jail. And if the judge’s decision seems to ignore the worth of the story to the public, one can only hope there would be a public outcry – although it’s never guaranteed.

All journalists have their secret sources, unique skills and methods for getting a scoop. There are lots of things I have done which I can’t admit to in case it is used as evidence against me. Investigative journalists often work on stories involving lying, secret filming and posing as criminals. The decision to undertake such activities is not made on the basis of a general disregard for the law or a belief that journalists should be above it, but on whether the story is a good one. I’m not promoting anarchy. Yet it is worth keeping in mind that laws reflect what the society of the day believes is the best way to resolve some issues; that doesn’t mean that all laws or systems of law-making are good in themselves.

Any journalist has to earn their reputation, not assume it. Yet journalists aren’t lawless – not even the ones who sometimes break the law. They weigh up the public interest with the risk of breaking a law, often consulting a huge team of editors and lawyers. It isn’t always easy. Journalist get arrested, locked up and fined on a regular basis.

Sometimes we think it is right to break the law because the story is worth pursuing. It might be controversial, involving, for example, the sexual habits and drug-taking activities of a public figure, and some journalists might not believe it is in the public interest. Is this lawless behaviour by journalists? Not really. It’s still about the story. Journalists aren’t breaking the law directly for their own personal gain but as part of their jobs, whatever you think of the merits of their story.

Even the law recognises that journalism has a special role in society; judges will consider the public interest defence. This does not mean that journalists always win in court. It is simply a recognition of the democratic function played by dedicated professionals whose job is to provide the public with information.

Any journalist worthy of the name should have the courage of their convictions to pursue a story that is worth uncovering. If they can stand by the story, and they believe the risk of imprisonment and fines are worth it, journalists should go for it – and they normally do.

Tessa Mayes is an investigative journalist and film producer. Email Tessa {encode=”info@TessaMayes.co.uk” title=”here”}.

A bad free press is better than the alternative, by Mick hume

Rip up the RIP Act, by Brendan O’Neill

Read more at spiked issue Privacy.

 

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