How Big Sam can avoid the next media sting

wembley-1234448_1920Say what you like about Big Sam falling for the Telegraph’s bogus businessmen but the media sting has fooled many a hard-bitten operator before now.

Over the years, high profile ‘victims’ from Kieren Fallon and Vince Cable to Tulisa and Sarah Ferguson show that the sting can penetrate every sphere of life, from sport to politics.

The Telegraph sting was sophisticated and most of us are unlikely to ever see our unguarded comments published in the nationals. But there are a few principles that can help you to protect your reputation and in some cases your freedom…

Protect your reputation and in some cases your freedom…

  • Apply the transparency test – don’t do anything you wouldn’t want your mum to know about. If you can imagine yourself on the doorstep of your house or outside a courtroom having to defend your decision, it’s possibly the wrong one. At the very least, it’s a decision you should take after serious consideration of the consequences and implications.

  • Imagine your conversation is being televised (like Sam’s this morning – can you imagine a worse thing to wake up to). There are often very good reasons to keep discussions or transactions secret, but if the reason is embarrassment to you or your employer, there’s another clue for you that you’re probably in what is euphemistically called ‘a grey area’. If your decision needs to be made in a smoke-filled room, chances are it may not be the best example of corporate governance.

  • Obey the code. If you are going extra-curricular, be aware of a) your professional/contractual obligations, b) your legal obligations and c) any regulatory code you are subject to before you go into the meeting. Your stakeholders/shareholders/clients may also be keen on you demonstrating you have ethics too – businesses have failed and succeeded on less.

Some stings are simple fishing exercises


  • Some stings are simple fishing exercises – ‘let’s use a shed-load of money to see if we can tempt so-and-so into doing something embarrassing’. But these are widely considered unethical and are therefore rare beasts. Instead, stings tend to be as a result of tip-offs about existing patterns of behaviour. In general (even if you aren’t newspaper fodder) the more you make unguarded comments or secret deals, the higher the chance of being exposed. But even if you are a big fish and you are ‘fished’ by a journalist, entrapment is not a defence recognized in the English legal system.

  • Do the blackmail test – if someone could extract money from you by threatening to expose what you are about to say or do, it’s almost certainly a bad idea from a reputational point of view

  • The use of the non-disclosure agreement – I’m willing to bet that no journalist involved in a successful sting operation was ever asked to sign one. It’s very doubtful whether an NDA would have applied in this case (Sam’s secret formula for international success does not appear to be on the table), but it’s often worth consulting lawyers about how to protect your business brand if there is a deal on the table that impacts it.



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