16 October, 2014
At the beginning of October, The Sun launched a campaign against what has become known as ‘revenge porn’. A number of famous people have been victims of the practice, which consists of a former partner publishing intimate material without their ex’s permission. More recently, it has come to light that young women and even teenage girls are being targeted, a fact which prompted the former culture secretary, Maria Miller MP, to call for revenge porn to be made a specific offence.
The Sun joined the campaign, lambasting what it called ‘ex maniacs’ and calling for them to be jailed. The paper published interviews with victims, describing how they had agreed to pose for intimate photographs or videos, only to be horrified when the relationship ended and their former partners made them public. Others said they had been blackmailed into posing for more pictures, after being told that earlier material would be published if they didn’t comply. The Sun thundered that revenge porn should be made a crime, with prison sentences of up to three years.
There is no doubt that revenge porn is a serious problem. Very young girls are being manipulated into posing by ‘boyfriends’, who subsequently use the images to humiliate them. Gay teenagers are also at risk, especially in schools where homophobic bullying is rife. The practice is a clear breach of privacy, as well as violating the trust which is usually assumed to be an essential part of a consenting sexual relationship.
The government’s response to Miller’s lobbying, which had the support of feminist organisations, was swift. On 12 October, the Sun on Sunday hailed the success of the campaign, crediting The Sun with bringing about the government’s crackdown on revenge porn. ‘Jilted lovers who post sexually-explicit photos or videos of exes online will face two years jail,’ it declared.
So, out of interest, what appeared on the front page of the Sun on Sunday that same day? Sexually explicit ‘selfies’ of two men, one a Conservative MP and the other a Premiership footballer, which they apparently sent to women they met via social networking sites. The MP was Brooks Newmark, who resigned as a junior minister two weeks earlier after being caught in a sting published by the Sunday Mirror. Next to him was a ‘topless’ picture of the footballer, which the paper claimed he had sent to two women without his wife’s knowledge. Newmark promptly announced he would step down as an MP at the general election, marking the end of his career in politics.
‘Sleazy Tory MP Brooks Newmark poses naked in one of a series of sex pictures sent to a second woman which led him to quit last night,’ the Sun on Sunday article began. Inside, on pages 4 and 5, the paper used a larger version of the page-one photo, and declared that others he had sent to the same woman were ‘unfit to print’.
The next day’s Sun published a slightly different selfie on its front page, showing Newmark’s naked chest and shoulders. Inside it described his affair with a ‘young mum’ in detail, published a photo of him sliding off his boxer shorts, and printed extracts from a series of texts he sent to her. Unlike the Sunday Mirror expose, in which the MP was revealed to have sent explicit pictures of himself to a male journalist pretending to be a young woman, the Sun story was about an affair with a real woman, even though her name was withheld.
In much of the press, the response to the latest revelation was muted, but some commentators claimed it vindicated the Sunday Mirror sting two weeks earlier; the logic appeared to be that the expose of the alleged secret affair justified the journalist’s use of subterfuge to get the original story. But the charge against the Sunday Mirror wasn’t that the politician had not behaved unwisely for someone in his position; it was that the story seemed to be the result of a trawl targeting several MPs in the hope that one of them would take the bait. The two ‘relationships’ appeared to differ in a number of crucial respects, as an interview with the woman who spoke to the Sun on Sunday made clear. ‘We had a full-on relationship for over two years,’ she told the paper. ‘I was in love with him.’
Indeed Monday’s Sun suggested that the affair ended as a direct result of the Sunday Mirror revelations: ‘The mum finally ended their affair two weeks ago after she discovered he had sent photos to the journalist’. So how did Newmark’s nude selfies, taken for private use and in the context of an intimate relationship, end up on the front page of a popular newspaper?
The answer appears to be that they were given to the paper by his ex-lover, without his knowledge or consent – a classic example, on the face of it, of revenge porn. And while Newmark has said that he blames no one but himself, the impact on the MP, his family and his career has been little short of catastrophic.
Risk-taking on this scale is foolish, especially in a public figure, but Newmark’s friends have said they feared he was close to a breakdown even before the revelations. After the Sun on Sunday story appeared, he announced that he would shortly begin residential treatment psychiatric treatment. As Newmark’s colleague, Maria Miller, has rightly observed: ‘The impact [of revenge porn] can be horrific, with victims losing jobs, self-respect and confidence’.
She was quoted on page 21 of the Sun on Sunday. The next day’s Sun carried this appeal to readers: ‘Have you caught your partner sexting?’ It invited them to call the paper and ‘we’ll ring straight back’. It’s hard to see this as anything other than encouragement to invade the privacy of sexual partners by looking at their mobile phones, where they might have stored explicit texts and pictures. If this material is passed on to journalists for publication in a newspaper, surely that would amount to, er, revenge porn.
Will The Sun now campaign for itself to be sent to prison?