The new newspaper regulator, IPSO, is facing its first test after the Sunday Mirror’s sting on a Tory MP was attacked as a “fishing expedition”.
Brooks Newman resigned his post as civil society minister after being caught sending compromising pictures of himself in paisley pyjamas to someone he thought was a twenty-something Tory PR girl called Sophie. In fact, “Sophie” was a male reporter, using a picture of a Swedish model, who had emailed a number of MPs and it was Newmark who took the bait.
Predictably, the Tories have cried entrapment while the mirror has defended its use of subterfuge by claiming the story and news gathering methods arejustified by public interest.
The Tories might have a point. Firstly, is it really a matter of public interest what Tories get up to in their private lives? The Editors’ Code of Practice provides a three point checklist to help journalists:
- Is it a crime or serious wrong doing? It’s certainly not a crime and it probably doesn’t warrant the tag of serious impropriety. After all, a high court judge ruled the News of the World’s revelations about Max Mosley attending sado masochistic orgies were his own business and no-one else’s.
- Was the public being misled? Don’t think so. As far as we know Newmark was not presenting himself as clean cut and holier than thou.
- Was there a health and safety issue? It depends what he was doing in his Paisley pyjamas – but probably not.
But even if there is a public interest defence, it doesn’t necessarily follow that the end justifies the means. The Telegraph undercover reporters targeted Lib Dem ministers trying to find out what they thought of their coalition partners they struck gold when Business Secretary Vince Cable boasted he would stop Rupert Murdoch’s planned take-over of the part of BSkyB he didn’t already own. Surely this is an example of a public interest story is hardly a frivolous pants-down piece. Absolutely, agreed the Press Complaints Commission, but that didn’t stop them reprimanding the Telegraph for their tactics.
The Code makes it clear that journalists must have prima facie evidence that they are likely to uncover something in public interest before using subterfuge or misrepresentation to be covered by the defence. Simply embarking on a “fishing trip” in the hope of catching a whopper and then trying to justify it if you do, is not good enough.
That may seem to some to hamper the role of the press as a crusading force for good, but they are the rules the Sunday Mirror has signed up to.
It will be interesting to see what happens next as IPSO, who now have the power to fine newspapers, are given the opportunity to show their teeth and demonstrate they are more than the toothless watchdog their predecessor was perceived to be.