The Independent Press Standards Organisation has ruled that the Guido Fawkes/Sunday Mirror investigation into Conservative MP Brooks Newmark was justified.
Despite Newmark not lodging a complaint, and refusing to give evidence, the press regulator investigated whether the story had breached clause 10 (subterfuge and clandestine devices) of the Editors' Code of Practice.
The story was published after Guido Fawkes reporter Alex Wickham posed as a “twentysomething Tory PR girl”, Sophie Wittams, on Twitter and exchanged explicit photographs with the Minister for Civil Society.
The IPSO investigation found that Wickham had well-placed sources – who were not identified to the regulator – who were not willing to go on the record over the claims, warranting the investigation. The regulator also ruled that the story was in the public interest.
IPSO investigated several stages of the investigation – the setting up of the Twitter account, the exchange of private messages and the Sunday Mirror's decision to publish – ruling that clause 10 was not breached at any time.
The story, headlined “Tory Minister quits over sex photo”, was published on 28 September 2014 after being sold to the paper by Guido Fawkes – which is not regulated by IPSO. It is understood that The Sun on Sunday and Mail on Sunday had turned down the story.
First stage: Fake account created
Contact with Newmark was started after the Wittams account – which had 88 followers, including some MPs, and was active – tweeted "Ha Ha" to Newmark when he had tweeted about Wimbledon tennis.
Newmark then initiated private contact on Twitter with the undercover Wickham.
IPSO ruled that subterfuge before the private messaging – i.e. the setting up of the account – was "minimal". It also noted that this was done after Wickham had been told by a confidential source that a number of women had been approached by MPs, including Newmark, seeking "inappropriate relationships" on social media. Wickham also based this on conversations with other sources.
It also noted that there was no “direct enticement, nor was there any direct contact” with Newmark and also accepted that subterfuge was justified because Wickham’s source was not prepared to go on the record.
IPSO said: “Mr Wickham considered that there was a significant public interest in investigating this further, given the imbalance of power between an MP at the top of the political ladder, and a woman involved at a low level in party politics.
“None of the sources was willing to speak on the record, and Mr Wickham therefore concluded that it would not be possible to corroborate the allegations without using subterfuge.
“He elected to set up the Twitter account to test whether it would receive contacts of the kind that his sources had described.”
IPSO added: “The decision to launch an investigation using clandestine means must be based on credible information that the person or persons to be investigated have previously behaved in the manner suspected, or that there are specific reasons to believe they would do so.
“Those who decide to cast a net that involves misrepresentation or subterfuge for the purposes of initiating an investigation must be in possession of such information before they do so, if they are to comply with Clause 10.”
Second stage: Private messages
After the "Ha Ha" tweet, Wittams was messaged by Newmark saying: “Glad you appreciate my sense of humour and how seriously I take my sport! :-)”.
Messages were then exchanged, including the suggestion by Newmark that they meet. He then asked Wittams to send a photograph of herself.
After several photographs had been exchanged, Wittams suggested they “take it to the next level”, and Newmark agreed and, having received an explicit image, “requested a further image in a different pose in exchange for “something in return”. The newspaper says that he later sent an explicit image of himself.”
IPSO said: “Mr Newmark’s decision to send a private message triggered an escalation of the degree of subterfuge and misrepresentation.
“Thereafter, it was he who decided to ask for a photograph in circumstances where, so far as any journalist might reasonably believe, there was no reason to do so other than to intensify the exchange.
“It was only after an exchange of pictures that ‘Sophie’ suggested they ‘take it to the next level’.”
IPSO judged that in the context the level of subterfuge used by Wickham was justified.
Third stage: Sunday Mirror decision to publish
The next part of IPSO's investigation was into the Sunday Mirror's decision to publish the story.
Sunday Mirror editor Alison Phillips said in evidence to IPSO that she had considered clause 10 of the Editors' Code.
She told the investigators that the validity of Wickham’s sources were double checked and to “put more detail around who the source was and the validity of previous tips”.
IPSO said: “She probed the strength of this source and was convinced that the source was sufficiently credible to have justified initiating the investigation.”
The Sunday Mirror declined to provide IPSO with “full details of the messages exchanged” and redacted some parts.
The regulator said: “Given its own duty of confidentiality, IPSO questions the need for the full exchange to have been withheld or redacted, but appreciates the need to take into account Mr Newmark’s privacy. Nonetheless, IPSO had sufficient information about the exchange of direct messages to reach the above conclusion.”
Phillips referenced the sources who had spoken to Wickham and said that others, including a “senior political journalist” had “corroborated some of Mr Wickham’s information”. The sources were not provided to IPSO, which it accepted with consideration given to clause 14 (sources) of the Editors' Code.
IPSO said: “There is always a danger that a newspaper relying on confidential sources will not convince the regulator that it had sufficient grounds for the investigation it conducted.
"In this case, however, IPSO found that the description of the exchanges between the journalist and his contacts was credible and the processes the Editor used to confirm the credibility of the sources were those IPSO would have expected.”
The Sunday Mirror also referenced the fact that it later emerged, from reports in other newspapers, that a “pattern of behaviour” in relation to Newmark was established.
IPSO said it was “satisfied that the editor was correct in her judgment that this information could not be obtained openly”.
Newmark did not complain, and declined to give evidence to IPSO, and the Sunday Mirror “maintains that IPSO does not have the power to make formal inquiries, leading to an adjudication, about this matter, in the absence of a complaint from a directly involved party”.
IPSO also accepted that the story was in the public interest because the “material obtained showed that a Government Minister who had made public his commitment to promoting a positive role for women in politics and was subject to a duty to uphold the highest standards in public life had engaged in an exchange of messages of a sexual nature with a woman he believed to be a junior party activist”.
IPSO noted, however, “that it did not seek to avoid addressing IPSO’s concerns. The newspaper cooperated with the investigation, making full submissions.
“IPSO does not accept the newspaper’s contention, but does acknowledge that this power needs to be more explicitly stated in its regulations. Accordingly, this is the determination of the Committee and is not an adjudication under the existing rules.”
Matt Tee, chief executive of IPSO said: “The Editors’ Code prohibits subterfuge unless in the public interest and only then where there is no other practical means of obtaining the story. This case raised public concerns and it was important that IPSO make inquiries, whether or not there was a complaint. After a lengthy investigation we have found that the subterfuge used was justified at each stage of the investigation and publication was in the public interest.
“I hope IPSO’s report into this issue is helpful for journalists and editors seeking to understand our approach to the use of subterfuge and misrepresentation. It is most important that IPSO has the freedom to undertake inquiries of this sort and we are clarifying this power with the industry.”