The newly formed British media regulator, the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO), will face its first major test after complaints were lodged to the body by a Tory MP in the wake of the Brooks Newmark scandal.
Mr Newmark, the Minister for Civil Society in the Conservative government, resigned from British parliament over the weekend after a Sunday Mirror sting which resulted in the MP exchanging lewd messages with a freelance reporter for the paper who posed as a “twenty-something Tory PR girl” Sophie Wittams.
Conservative Party politician Mark Pritchard, who was one of several other Conservative MPs also contacted in the sting, said that he would write to IPSO and the Met Police about whether the journalist’s actions constituted a breach of the IPSO code of conduct.
Mr Pritchard told the BBC that his referral of the matter to IPSO would test whether the new body had “real teeth”, after it was formally established on September 8 this year. The previous industry regulator, the Press Complaints Commission, was dissolved in the wake of the Leveson Inquiry.
Mr Pritchard, Mr Newmark and several other MPs, claim that they were contacted by the freelance male reporter under false pretences. The reporter posed as a young woman on Twitter and began exchanging messages with the MPs.
The Mirror’s sting resulted in Mr Newmark engaging in a direct message conversation with the fake account for Sophie Wittams, set up by the journalist, and ultimately sending “X-rated photos” to the reporter and asking to meet with the young woman to whom he thought he was talking.
The Mirror has defended its investigative methods, arguing that the story is in the public interest. Associate editor of the Daily Mirror, Kevin Maguire, said that the story was not the result of a “fishing expedition”, but was part of a larger investigation by the reporter into allegations MPs had been using social media to “meet people in an inappropriate way”.
“There is a huge question of judgement when you have a 56-year old father of five sending lewd pictures to someone who he believes is a 21-year old woman,” Mr Maguire told the BBC.
“As a parent, if I thought a minister… a man in a responsible position was chasing young women like this, I would think that is a matter of public interest.”
During the course of a conversation with “Sophie”, Mr Newmark asked for a picture “without your hand in the way and legs parted”, following up with “I will send you something in return – that way we each have a secret,” according to the Mirror.
The Mirror’s practice in soliciting these responses from Mr Newmark is being widely questioned, both by politicians and others in the media industry. Media lawyer for Mishcon de Reya, Charlotte Harris, told the Guardian that “many members of the public reading the Sunday Mirror story will consider that it does amount to entrapment – particularly if you look at when the story has been used.”
“If you are looking to expose hypocrisy, then you need to expose it when you discover it, not when you are going to get the best headline,” she said.
As well as possible entrapment charges, IPSO may also review the journalist’s use of pictures while posing as “Sophie”, that were actually of 26-year-old Charlene Taylor, and 22-year-old Swedish model Malin Sahlén.
Professor of journalism at the University of London, Tim Crook, wrote, in reference to the case, that “using imagery and personality rights without permission in a way that damages reputation, dignity, honour or identity could trigger consideration of potential breaches of defamation, privacy, as well as copyright and intellectual property.”
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