The commission ruled that the undercover methods used to obtain information for articles in the Independent about Bell Pottinger and lobbying were justified by serving the public interest.
The complaint relates to a BIJ investigation into lobbying, where journalists posed as executives of a fictitious Uzbeki firm and met senior Bell Pottinger executives over a supposed PR brief.
Bell Pottinger had argued that the subterfuge employed by the BIJ was unnecessary; that there was an insufficient public interest to justify subterfuge and that the material that resulted from it was sensationalised, misleading and exposed no wrongdoing.
The Independent argued there was a strong public interest in the story and its readers had a right to know about the firm's apparent willingness to work with a regime that would remain ‘brutal’ even if some reforms were put in place.
The PCC ruled that, although the case was a breach of Clause 10 of the Code stating that ‘the press must not seek to obtain or publish material acquired by using hidden cameras or clandestine listening devices’, the means employed by the journalists had been appropriately tailored to explore the allegations made by confidential sources about the firm's activities.
Charlotte Dewar, head of complaints and pre-publication services at the PCC, said: ‘The question that will always be asked of any undercover investigation is whether or not it was a "fishing expedition". This was a fine judgement but the commission was ultimately persuaded that the arguments put forward by the newspaper about the public interest justified the intrusion on this occasion.’
The PCC did acknowledge the firm's position that no 'serious impropriety' had been exposed.
Since the complaint Bell Pottinger has split from parent company Chime Communications, to create Bell Potting Private.