THE Independent Press Standards Organisation is being tested pretty early on in its existence after the revelations in the Sunday Mirror which led to the resignation of Brooks Newmark MP.
The story by now is widely known – he sent a picture of himself, or rather part of himself, to what he thought was a young woman, but which in actual fact was a reporter who had set up a fictitious social media account.
This raises a number of ethical issues, some of which I will try to discuss here, including subterfuge and privacy.
There are potential legal issues over data and the photographs of two young women used without their permission on the fake accounts, but they have been well covered elsewhere by Jon Baines among others, so I will only look at the ethical issues of their use here.
The core issue in this is whether the use of a fake account to contact Mr Newmark was justifiable. This kind of activity is covered in the Editors’ Code of Practice under clause 10 on subterfuge and the use of clandestine devices.
As a rule such tactics should only be used where it can be shown to be in the public interest to do so and it is the only way of obtaining the information.
Is it in the public interest to reveal Mr Newmark’s activity in this way? The Code of Practice defines public interest as covering, among other things detecting or exposing ‘serious impropriety.’
Mr Newmark was a minister of state and charged with bringing women into politics. If a man in his position is sending naked pictures of himself to a young woman he does not know, I think it is a matter of serious impropriety and therefore of public interest.
But that is not the end of the public interest test here. Importantly, there has to be a public interest reason established before any use of subterfuge. This is to prevent so-called fishing expeditions which are retrospectively justified by the wrongdoing they unearth.
On the face of it then, and as many commentators said, the Sunday Mirror story looked problematic. The fake Twitter account, under the name of Sophie Wittams, had followed a number of Tory MPs and had tweeted to them. It appeared that Newmark was the only one to swallow the bait. Critics said it was a classic fishing expedition, and therefore it was unjustifiable under the Code.
However, the reporter who had got the story was Alex Wickham, who works for the Guido Fawkes blog. Yesterday Guido posted an explanation of the story, which can be seen here.
In this explanation it is denied that this was a fishing expedition, but rather, acting upon information received, it was targeted on Newmark. The follows of other MPs were just to make the fake account look genuine.
IPSO a now has to pick its way through these two conflicting versions of events, but that is not as difficult as it may seem.
If Newmark was the target, not all the MPs, then there ought to be documentation – emails, notes or memos – which confirm that he was the target when the investigation was set up.
Furthermore, it ought to be possible to show that the way the fake account behaved toward innocent MPs followed for ‘cover’ was different to the way it interacted with Newmark.
Showing this preparation and behaviour would verify the account of events given by Guido, and it can be done without revelation of confidential sources who might have put them onto the story in the first place.
So, it will require a little forensic investigation by IPSO of the birth of this story and how it was pursued.
This still leaves the issue of the use of photographs of two women by the fake account. I think, on the face of it, this is difficult to justify ethically and Guido does not mention it in the defence published yesterday. Though the pictures were publicly accessible, their use in this way could, I think, be a breach of the clause of the Code which covers privacy. The editor-in-chief of the Sunday Mirror, Lloyd Embley, has already apologised for their use.
Critics of IPSO have already decided that this was a fishing expedition in breach of the Code. That might be true. It might also be true that there is an arguable public interest defence here.
I think we should wait to see what IPSO unearths.
* Declaration of interest. One of the many companies I work with is Mirror Group Newspapers, where I provide law and ethics training, and I occasionally write for The Daily Mirror and its websites.