A married politician is sent a series of lascivious photographs by an attractive female admirer. She asks him to respond in kind. He stupidly obliges, after being assured “on a stack of Bibles” that his online paramour will keep the photo private.
Days later he finds himself on the cover of a down-market tabloid, exposed for sending a “sex photo” to a woman who was, in fact, an undercover reporter. He did nothing illegal, but is quickly out of a job, forced to resign “having been notified of a story to be published in a Sunday newspaper.”
That newspaper is Britain's lowbrow tabloid The Sunday Mirror, which is now under fire from all quarters for allegedly entrapping Tory MP Brooks Newmark in a “sexting” sting after an anonymous freelance reporter engaged the politician on Twitter using a fake account.
Newmark was approached online by “Sophie Wittams,” a blond, flirty, “twentysomething Tory PR girl.” Except Sophie was really a male reporter, whose name is presently unknown, and the pictures of her were of a Swedish female model, now furious that her picture was used in this way.
The two—Newmark and “Wittams”—began exchanging direct messages on the social network before escalating their flirtation on WhatsApp, a mobile messaging app on which users can trade text messages and photos.
In one exchange, Newmark, who is a married father of five, allegedly sent “Wittams” a photo exposing his genitals, while “wearing a pair of paisley pyjamas.” But The Mirror acknowledged that Newmark sent the photo after receiving an explicit picture from “Wittams,” promising to “send you something in return—that way we each have a secret.”
Newmark resigned from parliament over the weekend, ahead of this week’s Conservative Party Conference, taking full responsibility for his ignominious departure as Minister for Civil Society. “I have been a complete fool,” he said in a statement. “I have no one to blame but myself. I have hurt those I care about most. I am so, so sorry. But I just need time with my family.”
On Monday, Swedish model Malin Sahlén was identified as the face of Sophie Wittams. In an interview with Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet Sahlén expressed outrage that the Mirror tapped photos from her public Instagram account “without her permission” and expressed sympathy for “others involved in this.”
Meanwhile, the Mirror has mounted a defense long employed by British tabloids: the investigation, they claim, was “in the public interest,” and their freelancer only pursued the story after “claims by sources that MPs were using social media networks to meet women.”
Sunday Mirror editor Allison Phillips denied that the story was a “fishing expedition,” despite the fact that at least eight other Tory MPs were contacted by Miss Wittams, one of whom allegedly wrote to her about his Jack Russell terriers.
The others targets exchanged pleasantries or ignored the eager, fake young Tory’s communication entreaties. But Newmark, who founded the “Women2Win” campaign encouraging women to join the Tory Party, was sending penis pictures to “someone he believed was a 21-year-old intern desperate to get into politics,” said Phillips, which is “wholly inappropriate and wholly in public interest.”
“I don’t think there is any public interest here,” George Brock, professor of journalism at City University London, told The Daily Beast. “And if you look at what has been published in papers over the last 20 years, this argument has been stretched well beyond credulity.”
Indeed, most of the trivial gossip stories published by these rags are simply interesting to the public, not in the public interest. But sex scandal sells, and tabloid journalism has long relied on hacking and subterfuge to compete with their more respectable peers.
And the British public seems to have little interest in Newmark’s scalp. 87 percent of readers polled by The Guardian aren’t buying the Mirror’s “in the public interest” defense.
Even Newmark’s traditional enemies, like the left-wing columnist Owen Jones, rallied on his behalf. As Jones tweeted, the Mirror was engaged in “gutter stuff” and Newmark’s transgressions “shouldn't be a resigning issue.”
But moralizers at the Mirror believe both in selling piles of newspapers and, they claim, that Newmark’s commitment to the “Women2Win” campaign is undermined by his sending of an inappropriate photo to someone he believed was a consenting adult. Nevermind that Newmark has never preached family values, nor is he a particularly well-known MP.
Even less well-known is the identity of the freelance journalist responsible for Newmark’s downfall, who is so confident in the ethical standards of his story that he has chosen to remain anonymous. But he should reveal himself and hold his head high: a career is ruined, the Mirror has sold a few more papers, and the perv in the paisley pajamas will never again harass fake “twentysomething Tory PR girls.”