Featured Research: The Ethics of Police and Media Stings, sponsored by the Society for Applied Philosophy

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by Stephen McLeod

I became interested in philosophical questions about entrapment in February 2015, following an episode, entitled ‘Politicians for Hire’, of the Channel 4 documentary ‘Dispatches’.

This led to an interdisciplinary conference in May 2016 on ‘Public Standards, Ethics and Entrapment’, supported by the University of Liverpool Interdisciplinary Networking Fund. It featured Liverpool speakers from communication and media, law, philosophy, politics and sociology, the Chair of the Research Advisory Board to the Committee on Standards in Public Life, the editor who commissioned the Dispatches episode, and a leading barrister with close knowledge of the episode and its aftermath.

For that event, Daniel Hill, Attila Tanyi and I wrote a presentation called ‘Entrapment and its Ethics’. Some material from it evolved into our recent article, ‘The Concept of Entrapment’, in the journal Criminal Law and Philosophy. This seems to be the first article that is dedicated to the question of how entrapment should be defined.

While attending conferences in the summer of 2017, including the Society for Applied Philosophy’s annual conference, I met some other philosophers who had published on entrapment. Having noticed that the Society provided financial support for locally-organized research events, I put together a proposal for a research workshop, to take place in May 2019, on ‘The Ethics of Police and Media Stings’ and, after some correspondence, the Society agreed to sponsor the event.

The workshop featured a mixture of work in criminology, legal theory and applied moral and political philosophy and was attended by academics, PhD students, serving and former police officers and a judge.

The morning session, chaired by Thomas Schramme (Liverpool), began with a joint presentation on the philosophy of regulating sting operations within the system of criminal justice, by Katerina Hadjimatheou (Essex) & Christopher Nathan (Warwick). Our former Liverpool colleague Attila Tanyi (Tromsø), related the ethics of entrapment to the problem of ‘dirty hands’ in political theory. The criminologist Bethan Loftus (Bangor) presented material from her forthcoming article, ‘Normalising Covert Surveillance: the Subterranean World of Policing’, which is an ethnographic study of the attitudes of police officers to covert operations. The session was rounded off by the legal theorist Liat Levanon (KCL) who spoke about the question of the admissibility in court of evidence gained via police entrapment by analogy with, and as against, evidence of the bad character of the accused.

Katerina Hadjimatheou chaired the afternoon session, which featured three presentations about the ethics of entrapment. My presentation critically examined the argument that, for reasons relating to the public interest, entrapment is in some cases morally permissible, or even morally required. Jeffrey Howard (UCL) spoke about the ethics of entrapment in relation to the subversion of the autonomy of the entrapped party. Daniel Hill (Liverpool) gave a closely related talk that examined the relationship between tempting someone to do wrong and the permissibility or otherwise of so doing. 

Participants commented positively on the interest, usefulness and success of the day and they appreciated its interdisciplinary nature.

Daniel, Attila and I are investigating the possibility of a related journal special issue and we hope to secure funding to support further and more substantial activity.

We gratefully acknowledge the support of the Society for Applied Philosophy and the Department of Philosophy.