The ethics of stinging

The Sunday Mirror reports today that Brooks Newmark, a Conservative minister, has resigned from the government after exchanging sexually explicit messages with a fictitious Tory activist.

An unidentified freelance male reporter (Alex Wickham, perhaps, by the looks of his twitter feed last night) assumed the profile of a young, blonde female activist, ‘Sophie Wittams’, and interacted with Newmark over several months. Ultimately, “during ­flirtatious chats and photo exchanges, [Newmark] sent a graphic snap exposing himself while wearing a pair of paisley pyjamas,” the Mirror reported gleefully.

According to a Buzzfeed report the freelance reporter had gone on something of a fishing expedition, sending tweets to several Conservative MPs. Newmark was the only one who took the bait.

Newmark behaved like an idiot, clearly. The U.S.-born politician will have followed the Anthony Weiner saga carefully enough to know that sexting has a nasty habit of precipitating ugly falls from grace.

….but, is this good journalism? ‘Stings’ are controversial because the journalists involved don’t simply uncover bad behaviour; they actively invite and facilitate it.

Often we judge that such activist reporting is necessary because it exposes worrying corruption or criminal behaviour. Recent stings include the Sunday Times (£) teasing Tim Yeo MP into agreeing to a sort of cash-for-influence arrangement. More controversially, The Sun on Sunday last year helped Tulisa Contostavlos fall into “cocaine deal shame”.

The key ethical question when it comes to stings, as Roy Gleenslade wrote in a blog post last year, is this: ‘is there enough prima facie evidence of wrongdoing by a person to warrant a sophisticated sting operation?’

The answer here is surely ‘no’.

But Lloyd Embley, editor-in-chief of the Mirror titles, has a riposte: the public interest defence.

How persuasive is that? The message the Mirror wants readers to buy is that Newmark’s sexting somehow conflicts with his laudable role in the Women2Win campaign group. That’s a tough case to make, to put it lightly.

A cruel passage in the Mirror’s exposé, I think, is further down. Newmark’s resignation, we are told, “comes as Westminster faces angry calls to crackdown on a culture of lechery and sexism in the wake of several sex scandals including accusations made against Lib Dem Lord Rennard by female party members.”

We aren’t told why Newmark’s messages represent sexist or lecherous behaviour.

Update: Roy Greenslade and Zoe Williams have both written pieces in the Guardian which are worth linking to

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