It was OK for a reporter to set up a sting posing as a woman on Twitter, according to the UK press regulator the Independent Press Standards Organization’s late March ruling. The ruse ultimately resulted in getting an explicit photo of a politician, Brooks Newmark.
Journalist Alex Wickham, who works for the blog Guido Fawkes, set up a Twitter account under the name Sophie Wittams and contacted Parliament member Brooks Newmark.
The unsuspecting politician Newmark then sent the Twitter account an “explicit” photo .
The sting was later documented by Wickham as a freelancer in the March 28 Mirror story, “Tory Minister quits over sex photo,” to the Sunday Mirror. Newmark ended up resigning because of the sexting incident.
After the story went public, Guido Fawkes blog denied the undercover actions amounted to a “fishing operation” to try to catch any politician it could.
Media ethics values include a industry-wide distaste for undercover reporting. Pretending to be someone else or tricking sources is only allowed for reporting at reputable media outlets under very strict and limited circumstances, which is reflected in IPSO’s guidelines.
“After a lengthy investigation,” IPSO wrote in a press release, “we have found that the subterfuge used was justified at each stage of the investigation and publication was in the public interest.”
IPSO’s investigation revealed that the reporter started the fake Twitter account only after a tip from an anonymous source. The tipster said “a number of women” said Newmark and other politicians tried to “initiate inappropriate relationships.” Since no source “was willing to speak on the record,” Wickham decided to start the Twitter account.
Newmark contacted Wittam directly after she tweeted “Ha Ha” to him. He ended up asking for photos from her and following up by sending “an explicit image of himself,” IPSO said.
Guido Fawkes’ Wickham pointed iMediaEthics to Guido Fawkes’ March 26 post responding to the IPSO ruling.The site defended its undercover actions, especially in light of critical articles at the time by the Guardian, the Standard and BuzzFeed, and repeated that it only was interested in investigating Newmark. “We only ever had a private conversation with one MP – Newmark – and it was instigated by him,” Guido Fawkes reported.
“The article and the newsgathering techniques used to obtain it raised issues under the Editors’ Code and were a matter of public concern,” IPSO said of its decision to investigate.
IPSO’s chief executive Matt Tee defended the Mirror story as in the public interest.
“This case raised public concerns and it was important that IPSO make inquiries, whether or not there was a complaint,” he was quoted in OPSO’s press release.
IPSO investigated the Mirror’s undercover report even though Newmark didn’t complain and didn’t participate in the investigation, IPSO said. Originally, another politician, Mark Pritchard, complained about the report and IPSO said it would investigate, but Pritchard settled his complaint with the Mirror after it published a correction, iMediaEthics reported at the time.
“The newspaper cooperated with the investigation, making full submissions,” IPSO said. However the Mirror redacted a list of messages between the reporter posing as a woman and the politician claiming it was necessary for the politician’s privacy.
IPSO’s predecessor the Press Complaints Commission didn’t have the power to investigate without a complaint.
The Mirror argued that IPSO overreached its power because it needed to base any investigation on a complaint, but IPSO denied that in its ruling.
iMediaEthics has written to the Mirror for comment.