On Saturday 27 September 2014, Conservative MP and Minister for Civil Society Brooks Newmark was approached by the Sunday Mirror and was confronted with the fact that he had exchanged “X-rated photos” with an undercover reporter posing as a female party activist.
Later the same day Mr Newmark announced that he was resigning from the Government and told the BBC he had been a “complete fool” and “that he had “no-one to blame” but himself.
But was this a story which was obtained and published in accordance with provisions of the IPSO Editors’ Code of Practice – a code which the Sunday Mirror has agreed to abide by?
According to the Sunday Mirror the story was obtained by a male “freelance reporter” posing as a “Tory PR girl”, Sophie Wittams”. The reporter created a (now deleted) Twitter account in this name and used (apparently without consent) a photograph of a Swedish model and at least one of the body of a random female tweeter from Lincolnshire.
An analysis of the archive of deleted tweets by Buzzfeed suggests that several MPs received attention from “Sophie Wittams” over the summer:
“In recent months Sophie Wittams tweeted compliments at Conservative MPs including Dan Byles, Charlie Elphicke, Rob Jenrick, Gavin Barwell and Mark Reckless. Only a handful of the politicians replied and there is no suggestion that any MP other than Newmark sent inappropriate sexts or pictures to the account”.
In other words, the freelance reporter was approaching a number of Conservative MPs seeking to engage them on Twitter. He successfully engaged with Mr Newmark. According to the Sunday Mirror, the relevant sequence of events was as follows
“On the evening of July 16, after Sophie told him she was lying in bed, Newmark wrote: “By the way I have no idea what you look like so post a pic to me on Whatsapp so I know what you look like when I meet you.”
In reply to a picture Sophie sent after midnight, the balding MP sent a picture of himself sitting on his bed and wearing a white T-shirt.
He forwarded another of himself below the waist as he reclined on his bed watching television in a pair of dark blue and red paisley pyjamas.
Sophie wrote: “Should I send another pic that is the question.” Newmark replied: “Wasn’t that the deal?”
Sophie asked how far he was willing to go. He wrote: “That’s very brave talk.”The reporter then sent a more intimate image, supposedly of Sophie, and Newmark wrote back saying: “You took my breath away!”
He then sent her a close-up of him with his hand covering his bare chest.
The pair discussed taking “it to the next level” before Sophie replied with an explicit naked picture and asked him to promise not to show anyone.
Newmark wrote: “You must be kidding! I’d never do that. But resend without your hand in the way and legs parted and I will send something in return. That way we both have a secret.” He added: “Assuming it meets my request and I reciprocate you MUST swear on a stack of Bibles you won’t show pics as I promise not to show pics of you? OK?”
The MP then sent a graphic image of himself to the reporter”.
In other words, in a late night flirtatious exchange, the freelance reporter sent an “intimate image” and then an explicit naked picture to Mr Newark who then responded with a “graphic image of himself”.
In summary, the Sunday Mirror has published details of a private exchange of messages between two adults. This was an exchange instigated by the freelance reporter engaging in deception and successfully provoking the MP into sending an explicit image in response to two such images which were sent to him.
Mr Newmark was doubtless acting an unwise and foolish manner – engaging in explicit exchanges with a person who he thought was a young woman over the internet. It is, in the circumstances, unsurprising that he felt necessary to resign. But this does not provide retrospective justification for the freelance reporter’s “sting”. The question remains is it justifiable for reporters to try and entrap a public figure into foolish and unwise conduct?
The relevant provision of the Editors’ Code of Conduct is Clause 10 ii) which provides that
“Engaging in misrepresentation or subterfuge, including by agents or intermediaries, can generally be justified only in the public interest and then only when the material cannot be obtained by other means”
This provision was recently considered by the now defunct Press Complaints Commission (“PCC”) in the context of the “sting” perpetrated on Vince Cable MP by two Daily Telegraph journalists posing as his constituents and asking him questions designed to expose divisions in the Coalition (and which led to him having to relinquish responsibility for the Murdoch BSkyB bid).
“consistently ruled that so-called ˜fishing expeditions’ – where newspapers employ subterfuge and use clandestine devices without sufficient justification – are unacceptable”.
In that case, the Daily Telegraph said that, in investigating Lib Dem MPs, it has been acting on “information from various sources”. This argument was rejected by the PCC which pointed out that the information was of a general nature and not sufficient to justify the degree of subterfuge involved. It that the public interest had to be such as to justify proportionately the level of subterfuge involved. It went on to say
“For the Commission to have sanctioned this method, it would have had to be convinced that a high level of public interest could reasonably have been postulated in advance. It did not believe that the Telegraph – although acting no doubt with legitimate intent – had sufficient grounds, on a prima facie basis, to justify their decision to send the reporters in”.
The complaint was therefore upheld. Even though some public interest material had, in fact, been uncovered in that case that was irrelevant to the question as to whether the subterfuge was justified in the first place.
This reasoning applies directly to the actions of the freelance reporter in Mr Newmark’s case. It does not appear to be suggested that there was any prima facie evidence that any of the six MPs approached were engaging in inappropriate conduct on the internet. There appears to have been nothing to justify the use of subterfuge by the freelance reporter. This seems to have been a pure “fishing expedition”, designed to entrap one or more Conservative MPs into inappropriate conduct.
The Mirror Editor in Chief has claimed that it has a “nailed on” public interest justification for the story on the basis that Mr Newark was a sponsor of a Conservative Party initiative to attract more women into politics and that he had mentioned this scheme in the exchanges. That may be so, but the fact that Mr Cable’s opinions about Rupert Murdoch – revealed in the Telegraph sting were even more clearly in the public interest, did not prevent the Telegraph from falling foul of the antecedent rule about fishing expeditions.
That same tweet from the Mr Embley suggests that because it came from a freelance means it was not a “Mirror sting”. Given that they published it that would be no defence to any charge that the methods used were unethical.
This case is an early test of the resolve of IPSO – the body which the press, including in particular the Mirror newspapers – have been keen to promote as a tough and dynamic regulator. Will this body now investigate whether or not the Brooks Newman story was a breach of its code?