The recent Sunday Mirror ‘fishing exercise’ scandal involving a fake Twitter account and former Cabinet Office Minister, Brooks Newmark, has raised questions around ethics in journalism in a post-Leveson world. Talk BU asked BU lecturer and former journalist, Andrew Bissell, what we can learn from the scandal, and what we should be teaching the journalists of the future about rights and wrongs.
Firstly, are the media within their rights to set up proactive operations in order to uncover private details/images/practices of celebrities?
Media rights are addressed by the law, the European Convention on Human Rights and the Editors’ Code of Practice. Nonetheless privacy is not a black and white issue; on the contrary, interpretation and opinion ensure the issue continually swirls in a persistent grey fog.
For example, any individual can require any UK court to consider their rights under the European Convention on Human Rights which came into UK law in 2000. But while Article 8 contains the right to respect for privacy and family life, Article 10 enshrines the right to freedom of expression and the right to receive and impart information.
Similarly, the Editors’ Code of Practice reinforces the right to privacy however there may be exceptions “where they can be demonstrated to be in the public interest”. A public interest justification can also be offered if material acquired by “clandestine devices and subterfuge” is obtained or published.
However the proactive nature of the Sunday Mirror sting is particularly interesting with regard to public interest; that’s because the now defunct Press Complaints Commission consistently ruled that ‘fishing expeditions’ – the dangling of bait to see what happens – were unacceptable. For all its claims of public interest, the Sunday Mirror story could appear to exhibit many of the hallmarks of such an ‘expedition’.
Does the public have the right to know what MPs such as Brooks are up to away from the public eye? Was this really in the public interest?
Again, we return to the grey area of opinion and interpretation: is there a tipping point when an MP’s private conduct can be deemed to question his or her claims to honesty and integrity in public office?
The Sunday Mirror claims there was a “clear public interest” because Mr Newmark had a prominent role in seeking increased representation of women in Parliament. Others, of course, will simply maintain he’s the victim of a commercial drive to sell newspapers. Some legal experts have already declared the sting amounts to entrapment and maintain claims of public interest are weak.
In the light of the Leveson Enquiry, should the media think more carefully about the way they conduct undercover operations?
Publication of this story has certainly raised media eyebrows. I’m not surprised two newspapers reportedly turned it down considering the current media climate. There is still intense post-Leveson scrutiny of the press and Independent Press Standards Organisation (Ipso), the new regulator, is just three weeks old. Ipso was already under pressure to demonstrate its independence; now many will want to see the size of its muscles too.
Meanwhile the Sunday Mirror is already in the firing line for seemingly using a Twitter picture of a model without her permission to illustrate their article. And all this comes less than a week after the Sunday Mirror’s parent company admitted that some of its journalists had hacked phones. The media already thinks very carefully about undercover work; this case – and the all-important reaction of Ipso – will offer further food for thought.
Will this be the test case for the Independent Press Standards Organisation (Ipso)? How do you think they might react?
This is certainly a test case. Ipso will take its time and could well employ the kind of proactive investigation its predecessor, the PCC, did not. Ipso has 28 days to get the facts of the case together and then pass them on to a complaints committee. Will a breach of the Code be found? It’s a very close call.
How do we as a university explain to students where the lines are when it comes to doing what it takes to get a good story? What boundaries do we instill within them?
Tuition for journalism students at BU is guided by the ethical and professional standards enshrined in the Code of Practice. Courageous, incisive journalism frequently poses complex and difficult ethical dilemmas; however we do not want to instill a suffocating, risk-averse approach to investigatory work.
What is your opinion on the whole episode? Do you think it will become a milestone in press regulation?
I think the heat is about to be turned up on the simmering post-Leveson regulation debate. All eyes are now on Ipso and its first high-profile decision seems destined to define its future position.