They are calling it the Brooks Newmark Sex Scandal. The ethics of the Sunday Mirror’s virtual online honey trap farrago would appear to be the first high profile complaint that the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) will have to deal with. Hardly Watergate is it? The matter is a giggle for some, toe-curlingly embarrassing or sheer theatre of the absurd for others and heart-breaking – and distressing for Newmark and his family.
David Aaronovitch analysed the matter in The Times and came to the conclusion that Newmark’s fall is “from online to the ridiculous”. It’s a classic tabloid story offered to and taken by the Mirror from a freelance journalist. It is not something the “quality” broadsheets and the BBC would be initiating as “investigative journalism”, but if all the ingredients were not in the frame of some “public interest” they would have ignored the story, would they not?
Nice and sleazy does it
When the raucous British popular press start ruffling the feathers of the establishment and nipping the back-sides of the sensitive behind of powerful elites with “sleazy journalism” that “ruins people’s lives” it is fascinating how the rest of the media takes great sport in picking over the leftovers and frothing in the methane stream.
But hypocrisy in British politics and media history is an under-rated and neglected cultural shibboleth. There’s an art to it. The dividing line in journalistic respectability is like trying to compare the aesthetic legitimacy of a Sandro Botticelli nude and a Page Three representation of contemporary mammary glands.
Nearly every aspect of this affair is fantasy and imagination. There is no victim except an anticipated foreboding of what might have been. The Mirror in a justifying editorial by Julia Hartley-Brewer said: “When a minister, paid by taxpayers, sends explicit photos to a complete stranger (who turns out to be not a young woman Tory party worker but a man working undercover for a newspaper) then he has chosen to make his privates a public matter.”
She continued: “If Brooks Newmark was dumb enough to text his post-watershed selfie, how can we trust his judgment in his working life? And how open is he to blackmail? And once he has lied to his wife, what stops him from lying to us, the voters he has not met?”
Sophie Wittams was effectively a texting Whatsapp, Twitter avatar, a concoction in the virtual world constructed by “borrowing” the images of real people and manipulated in Twitter-speak by journalistic subterfuge. Sophie endeavoured to establish liaison with Conservative Party politicians and Newmark succumbed to the allure of imaginative intimacy and shared written confidences and imagery of what of old would be termed “of a lewd nature”.
Have you noticed how a lot of the media has made something of fetish out of the rather classy brand of pyjamas the now ex- minister for civil society was wearing while baring his anatomy? Yet as I write, the issue has generated only four comments on Mumsnet.
Only way is ethics
What are the media legal and ethical issues engaged here? There’s speculation that Sophie’s portrait may have been that of a Swedish model. It would assist the Sunday Mirror if it had obtained the permission of both the subject and copyright holder of the image to be used in this way.
The Telegraph investigates and reports in the true tradition of the Fleet Street diaspora dog-eating-dog that a “sun-bathing selfie” of Sophie had been hijacked from the real 26-year-old Charlene Taylor. Charlene says the image was used without her permission and has expressed the maturity and compassion of a generation familiar with the burlesque and mischief of smart-phone photography and social media: “I think grown adults can do whatever they like as long as both of them are over the age of consent. I don’t think it’s something to resign over.”
In theory, 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.
IPSO has the kind of bite the old PCC never had. It can impose fines of up to £1m on contracted members for serious breaches of the editors’ code. The Sunday Mirror is signed up. Ironically had the Guardian, Observer, Independent, Evening Standard or Financial Times been playing “entrapment” games with Tory politicians, they would only be dealing with the potential flack of litigation. These newspapers have been standing off IPSO.
Media commentators of rival papers and “media victim” lawyers have expended much angst striking the questions that Trinity Mirror may have to address. Will they be able to satisfy 10(ii) of the editors’ code of practice:
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.
Will the story reach the necessary threshold of “public interest” in terms of “preventing the public from being misled by an action or statement of an individual or organisation,” or there being “a public interest in freedom of expression itself”?
A deciding factor will be whether the story was the result of a speculative fishing expedition. But it’s reported by Press Gazette that a freelance journalist had been investigating inappropriate use of social media by MPs and specific sources had briefed him on how they were using social media networks to meet women. Sunday Mirror editor-in-chief Lloyd Embley says there was a “nailed-on public interest” to the story.
That’s as may be. In this case, as in so many Fleet Street cases of old, the public interest is in the eye of the editor. But a familiar refrain from academia and the tabloid loathing sphere post-Leveson might be that in 2014 the public interest needs to be more than what entertains the scandal mongers.