~ Posted by Robert Butler, May 28th 2012

A topical aspect of Charles Dickens's career that has been overlooked in the 200th anniversary celebrations is his talent as a blagger. In February 1838 he travelled to Yorkshire to see the Bowes Academy at Greta Bridge where—in a case that went to trial—two boys had gone blind through infection and neglect. (The small Bowes churchyard contained the graves of 25 boys aged between seven and 18 who had died in the last 30 years.) Dickens visited Bowes Academy under an assumed name and told the school’s master, William Shaw, that he was there as a friend of a widow who was looking for a school for her son. 

An early example of undercover journalism, Dickens’s reporting provided compelling details for “Nicholas Nickleby” about the state of the pupils at Dotheboys Hall ("the scowl of sullen dogged suffering"). But how would Dickens’s deception have fared at the Leveson Inquiry into journalistic practices? This month the Daily Telegraph columnist Peter Oborne argued that occasionally journalists had to commit criminal offences for the greater public good. The example Oborne gave Lord Justice Leveson was having to go undercover in order to make a television documentary. The response took him by surprise.

LORD JUSTICE LEVESON: What's criminal about undercover filming?

OBORNE: Is that right? I thought that you couldn't—there's an intrusion on privacy.

LORD JUSTICE LEVESON: Ah, it may be tortious, it may be a civil wrong. Criminal is very, very different.

Leveson proceeded to give Oborne a judicious lecture on what he could and couldn’t do.

That it is legitimate in the public interest, for example, to film undercover is eminently sustainable as an argument. Indeed, the Data Protection Act...carries with it a defence for journalists acting in the public interest. So it isn't a crime because there is a defence written into the statute.

Dickens’s blagging, then, was "eminently sustainable" in terms of the public interest. After the publication of “Nicholas Nickleby”, Bowes Academy, along with some of the other terrible schools in Yorkshire, were closed down. But had Dickens gone as far as to intercept any of Shaw’s correspondence, that would have been—to use Lord Justice Leveson's phrase—"very, very different".

 Robert Butler is online editor of Intelligent Life