On 31st May 2014, a Sunday Mirror journalist set up a Twitter account. For the profile pic, he used a Swedish model’s, Malin Sahlén. He did not ask her permission. Men who pretend to be women online rarely do.
[As I discovered later, the journalist, Alex Wickham, did not work directly for the Sunday Mirror when he posed as Sophie Wittams: Alex Wickham works for the Guido Fawkes political blog.]
Last year Markus Frind, founder of the world’s biggest dating site “Plenty of Fish” , shut down the PoF’s casual sex section because though 3.3 million people in the UK were using it daily to find a casual hookup, only 6,041 of those users were “women” – and most of those, the site had worked out, were actually men. Frind told users
the “Intimate Encounters” section “can be summed up as a bunch of horny men talking to a bunch of horny men pretending to be women.”
The Sunday Mirror journalist used the name “Sophie Wittams” and described himself as a “twenty-something Tory PR girl”. He used the Twitter account to compliment and flirt with Tory politicians. Jim Waterson on Buzzfeed outlines the process and published two of the photos that the Sunday Mirror journalist had used – the journalist had found a snapshot posted on Twitter as a #sunbathingselfie by Charlene Tyler, and sent it to Brooks Newmark pretending he was the woman in the picture.
Jim Waterson didn’t ask the permission of the women whose photos he published on Buzzfeed, either.
Men who go online pretending to be women may have multiple motivations for doing so: one 4Chan user who did it for two hours as an experiment but hadn’t expected how sexualised it would get so fast:
I would be lying if I said it didn’t get to me. I thought it would be some fun thing, something where I would do it and worse case scenario say “lol I was a guy I trolle you lulz”etc. but within a 2 hour span it got me really down and I was feeling really uncomfortable with everything. I figured I would get some weird messages here and there, but what I got was an onslaught of people who were, within minutes of saying hello, saying things that made me as a dude who spends most of his time on 4chan uneasy. I ended up deleting my profile at the end of 2 hours and kind of went about the rest of my night with a very bad taste in my mouth.
For some men, evidently, the barrage of heavily sexualised attention (even if it’s from other men) is what they want: a form of self-published pornography, written as if from “the woman’s” perspective, in which the target of all that sexualised attention enjoys it – unlike pesky women in real life, or even pesky real women on online dating sites.
For the Sunday Mirror journalist, it was a baited trap: he wanted Tory MPs to believe he was a young, beautiful woman, employed by/loyal to the Tory party, really, genuinely, seriously attracted to their Conservative manhood.
Most of them were wary enough or wise enough or even ethical enough not to respond.
Brooks Newmark was neither wary, wise, nor ethical.
Let’s be clear. The Sunday Mirror journalist’s behaviour was reprehensible. He was using photographs of women without their knowledge or consent, to troll for attention from Tory MPs, hoping that if he tried long enough one of them would react improperly and he’d have a story.
This does not make Brooks Newmark’s behaviour any cleverer or any more ethical. Robert Jenrick, Conservative MP for Newark, was also tweeted by the Sunday Mirror journalist: the Nottingham Post reports that the journalist called Jenrick a “fitty”. (He told the Post that he remembered seeing the tweet from Sophie Wittams but “decided not to reply”.)
“With hindsight it does seem optimistic that someone would Tweet such flattering comments.”
Newmark has dual US/UK citizenship: he was born in Connecticut and he is both a Harvard and an Oxford graduate. He is married to Lucy Keegan: they live in a five-storey house in Belgravia with their five children. One of the last communications Brooks Newmark had with “Sophie Wittams” was arranging a meetup at the Conservative Party conference that weekend – until the Sunday Mirror let him know that the journalist he’d been talking to was not 22, not a Tory Party PR-worker, not going to the Conservative Party conference, and not so much interested in the Newmark dick.
Whereupon Brooks Newmark resigned his Ministerial post, went home to (I’m guessing) have a very awkward conversation with his wife and his children, and (I’m speculating madly) to hide under the covers with his laptop and get comfort attention somewhere else.
Newmark was appointed Minister for Civil Society in July this year, and at the beginning of September, he peevishly instructed charities who were annoying the Tory party with their informed and accurate criticisms of the poverty and misery Tory policies have brought upon the most vulnerable people, to “stick to their knitting”.
That should have been a resignation offence from the Minister whose portfolio includes responsibility for charities and volunteering. But presumably it’s exactly what David Cameron thinks: the Big Society was never meant to be about illustrating how Conservative/LibDem benefit policies have ensured so many more people sinking into desperate poverty and debt, creating a public health emergency that charities need to inform the public and politicians about.
We do not, obviously, know why Brooks Newmark wanted to meet with Sophie Wittam at the Conservative Party conference. The Sunday Mirror journalist had made clear his avatar thought Newmark was attractive, had sent a #sunbathingselfie, and if the journo was what his avatar had appeared to be – a beautiful blonde young woman whose career lay ahead of her in the Tory party, who would never complain or talk to the press about an MP’s behaviour, well – perhaps Newmark wanted to share with her some of his passion about getting more women to become Conservative MPs? He was a co-founder of the Women2Win campaign.
What he got was a Sunday Mirror journalist sniggering at him in his paisley pyjamas.
How was Newmark expected to know the young, beautiful “Tory PR girl” who fancied him was actually a man posing as a woman with stolen photographs? It’s not as if this is something that happens often online. Oh wait: it actually is.
I don’t condone the Mirror journalist, but who can feel sorry for Newmark? All he had to do was say to the young woman who seemed to be pursuing him, “I’m sorry, this is inappropriate, please don’t send me #sunbathingselfies of yourself.” Or just block her as soon as the first too-personal DM arrived. If you’re going to argue “why should he have done that, there’s nothing wrong with what he did”?
Brooks Newmark’s Twitter account is his work account. It represents him as an MP. If someone else who works for the Tory party at a much-junior level to him as an MP contacts him on his work account, yes, he should stay professional, and let the contacter know he expects her to stay professional too.
What Brooks Newmark does at work is in the public interest by definition.
Meanwhile, the Sunday Mirror owes Malin Sahlén and any other women whose photos were made use of by their journalist for this or any other sting operation, a profound apology, compensation for the misuse of their images, and assurance that the journalist who did this will never be employed by them again.