A barrister with Pump Court Chambers has suggested that the Sunday Mirror may be guilty of a serious criminal offence over its story regarding a sex sting involving a government minister.
MP Brooks Newman resigned as minister for civic society on Saturday night (27 September) after it was revealed he had sent “explicit” pictures of himself to a journalist who was posing on Twitter as a 22 year-old female researcher called Sophie Wittams.
Pump Court Chambers barrister Mathew Scott has raised the possibility that the story was a breach of the Sexual Offences Act 2003 which makes it a crime to “cause a person to indulge in sexual activity without consent”.
Scott noted that in previous cases courts have found people guilty under the act if the consent was obtained by fraud. The maximum sentence that can be given for the offence is 10 years imprisonment.
Speaking to The Drum Scott said that while the law in this area was "pretty complicated," he could see "no reason that just because it is done online that wouldn’t make it a sexual activity."
Conservative MP Mark Pritchard, who was also contacted by the journalist operating the fake Twitter account, has called for the police to investigate the matter and also complained to the The Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) about the tactics used by the tabloid.
The case will be the first major test for the new regulator after it took over the press complaints commission earlier this month.
A spokesperson for IPSO said: “We will of course consider any complaints relating to this like we would any other story,” adding, “we will not provide a running commentary on our proceedings”.
The spokesperson also confirmed that although IPSO encourages people to first seek a resolution of their complaint through the publisher of the article, that would not prevent them investigating the issue.
If the publisher is found to have breached the code in a “sufficiently serious” manner the regulator can impose a fine of up to £1m or one per cent of annual turnover.
In a statement Alison Phillips, weekend editor of The Mirror said that the story was brought to the newspaper by a freelance reporter adding: “Brooks Newmark was a co-founder of Women2Win campaign and was at the forefront of Conservative Party attempts to promote more women MPs. Therefore his exchanges with someone he believed to be a young intern interested in politics were wholly inappropriate.”
Clause 10 of the Editors’ Code of Conduct states that newspapers can only engage in misrepresentation or subterfuge if in the public interest, and then only when the material "cannot be obtained by other means”.
In a blog post Hacked Off, the group which campaigns for the victims of press intrusion called on IPSO to thoroughly investigate the story calling the Mirror’s tactics a “fishing expedition”.
"Is it justifiable for reporters to try and entrap a public figure into foolish and unwise conduct?,” it stated.
The story also raised legal issues with the Swedish woman whose picture was used on the fake account saying she did not give permission for her image to be used.
Malin Sahlén, whose image was used on the fake Twitter account said she had not given permission for her picture to be used. Sahlén, a former contestant in the Swedish version of Top Model, wrote on her blog: "Just want to inform all my dear blog readers that it happened to me something terrible today. Right now, I feel very confused and do not understand that what has happened has happened.”
Speaking to the BBC Newmark said: "I have no-one to blame but myself. I have hurt those I care about most." adding "I am so, so sorry. But I just need time with my family.”