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Sting operations taint journalistic practices

ByCameron Nicoll

Oct 7, 2014
courtesy of Shankbone

The ethics of the UK press are once again under scrutiny following the resignation of former Minister for Civil Society Brooks Newmark. Newmark and at least seven other Conservative MPs were targets of a sting operation performed by freelance journalist Alex Wickham, who went undercover posing as a “20-something Tory PR girl.” Using photos of models found on the Internet, Wickham lured the 56 year old MP into sending explicit photos of himself over Twitter. It is almost unfathomable that an MP could be so oblivious as to text such images to a stranger, yet Newmark’s foolishness does not justify the operation. In the murky realm of journalistic ‘dark arts’, it seems that integrity is non-existent and basic rights are ignored.

Wickham gave the story to The Sunday Mirror, after both The Sun and The Mail on Sunday rejected it over “unjustifiable elements” and worries of entrapment. The editors’ code of practice emphasises that subterfuge is only defensible when it is in the “public interest”. The Daily Mirror has maintained that the exposé does not violate this part of the code, but the public interest aspect is irrelevant in the same sense methods that Wickham employed are indefensible.

The Daily Mirror has denied that the sting was a fishing expedition, a definitively disallowed practice, but traps were set for at least eight Tory MPs. It is highly unlikely that Wickham had prima facie evidence to show that all of these men would be likely to engage in ‘sexting’, and the lack of such evidence is crucial. Some of these men were not married, and in those cases it is surely a simple intrusion on the private lives of consenting adults. We must also question the political motives of the investigation as all of the targets belong to the Conservative Party. It is clear that Wickham went fishing and was lucky enough to lure Newmark into behaving inappropriately, but in this case the ends do not justify the means.

Since the Leveson Inquiry of 2012, the ethics of investigative journalism have not been far from the public conscience. Last year Mazher Mahmood, former News of the World reporter and self-proclaimed ‘King of the Sting’, headed an operation that led to Tulisa Contostavlos being charged with arranging an £800 cocaine deal. The ‘Fake Sheikh’ traded his usual robes for a flashy suit in order to pose as a wealthy Bollywood producer, and offered the singer a film deal worth upwards of £3 million. How disproportionally enticing does the bait have to be before it’s seen as entrapment?

After only beginning work earlier this month, the UK’s new press industry regulator faces its first test in the wake of the phone-hacking scandal that forced the closure of both its predecessor, the Press Complaints Commission, and the News of the World.

The Independent Press Standards Organisation (Ipso) are expected to launch an investigation into The Sunday Mirror, but following allegations over Ipso’s ties to newspaper and magazine publishers, there is little reason to anticipate change in the post-Leveson era. Mahmood argues that “subterfuge is a legitimate and basic tool of investigative journalism,” but the world of disguises and dark alleys that he is party to, relies on the exploitation of vague guidelines and the dubious promise of self-regulation.


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