The Sunday Mirror's Brooks Newmark exposé: a blatant fishing exercise that struck gold
There is an ethical debate to be had about whether the Sunday Mirror was right to publish the story about a Tory MP sexting, but the detail cannot be faulted. In fact we should revel in it: the junior minister sent a picture to a woman he believed was a Tory activist exposing his genitals "while wearing a pair of paisley pyjamas".
Stung by the Sunday Mirror: Brooks Newmark
It is this glimpse of the ordinary amongst the extraordinary that convinces readers that the story cannot be anything else but true. OK, it also helps that Brooks Newmark resigned and said he had been a complete fool.
The less than honourable member – and here we are talking about the MP and not the paisley protrusion – has not attacked the Sunday Mirror for running the exposé and so far is not reporting the paper to the complaints board Ipso. Instead he has accepted the consequences of his stupidity, quit his ministerial position and said he needs time with his family.
Time will tell if Newmark, no political shrinking violet, will move from being apologetic to adversarial and take on the Mirror for its prosecution of the story. Probably not.
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However Mark Pritchard, one of the other MPs contacted by the male reporter purporting to be an attractive girl, is raising a formal complaint with Ipso saying that "the Sunday Mirror has serious questions to answer over its evidence gathering techniques and attempts at entrapment".
Pritchard says that he is a single man and if he had invited her out on a date, so what? Quite right, but what if he had sent a picture exposing himself in a pair of Rupert the Bear pyjamas?
The claim is that the freelance undercover reporter who took the story to the Mirror had indulged in a wide-ranging fishing expedition in an attempt to manoeuvre Tory MPs to do something stupid or illegal. Yes he did, and if that is not acceptable we might as well do away with the tabloid newspapers and the right to investigate. For that matter we might as well scrap Panorama, the Daily Telegraph and the Sunday Times and every other media outlet that tries to do its job.
In April this year the Tory MP Patrick Mercer was forced to resign after Panorama exposed him for taking money for lobbying by using a fake company. Two years ago undercover Daily Telegraph reporters discovered doctors were willing to abort babies on the basis of their gender. The Sunday Times Insight team has uncovered more cash for questions and lobbying then can be documented by duping its targets. All these can be described rightly as fishing expeditions.
It's what newspapers do every day in different forms. The weekly newspaper that sends its reporter down to the magistrates court is on a fishing expedition. Every case will not be reported, just those that are newsworthy and interesting. When features editors send writers out to conduct interviews they have no idea what will be the outcome. If the interview is boring it will be junked.
What appears in the mainstream media does not happen by chance; reporters and writers are sent out in many cases to get a story, not THE story. The undercover reporter who posed as the blonde Sophie Wittams had no idea what he was going to get when he sent the emails out to MPs but struck gold with Newmark, not only the junior minister for civil society, but also the founder of the Women2Win campaign, designed to encourage women to run for the Tories.
The Ipso editors' code of practice says: "Engaging in misrepresentation or subterfuge, including by agents or intermediaries, can generally be justified only in the public interest and only when the material cannot be obtained by other means."
Is it justfiable to expose an MP who sends pornographic pictures to young women? The answer must be yes. Was there any other way to discover that he was a social media sex pest? Probably not. Was it a fishing exercise? The Mirror has said that the reporter's investigation began after "claims by sources that MPs were using social media networks to meet women."
A load of twaddle.
It was a blatant fishing exercise that struck gold. No excuses. But that does not make it wrong or illegal.
The Sunday Mirror should stand its ground and if necessary refer to a former Mirror editor, the late Richard Stott, who always believed in the principle that the relationship between politicians and the press should be like that of the lamppost and the dog. In fact 'Lampposts and Dogs' was the title of his autobiography.
Chris Boffey is a former news editor of the Observer, Sunday Telegraph and the Mirror