This is Adam Boulton’s weekly column for Reaction. Subscribe to Reaction here.

In the muscle memory, at least of those over the age of forty, the Sunday papers are still the place to look for scandal and investigative journalism, which they can expect to be doggedly followed up by Sir David Frost’s successors on the morning interview shows. 

The News of The World is no more. These days it is difficult, and frowned upon, to expose misbehaving vicars and school masters (unless they are dead – see Charles Spencer’s prep school memoir). Lawyers and the British courts ensure that it is hazardous to take on rich businesspeople and superstars. MPs however are still considered fair game. Obligingly politicians often fall over themselves to blow the whistle on each other. 

With parliament still in its Easter recess, there were two potentially juicy stories to have a go at last weekend. Raynergate – concerning what the Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, Angela Rayner, called “home” over a decade ago before she became an MP – and the Honeytrap, in which MPs, staffers and Westminster journalists are caught up in a concerted attempt online to extract confidential and compromising information from them.

The contrasting manner in which these two supposed scandals have come to public attention and the different ways they are being treated exposes intriguing aspects of the balance of power between the old and new media. 

The Rayner story has been kept on the front pages for several weeks now. It is the product of chequebook journalism – the routine practice of The Mail on Sunday and other papers of buying up pre-publication serial rights to books. In this case, Red Queenan unauthorized biography of Angela Rayner MP, was commissioned by the mischievous Conservative donor and former deputy party chair Lord (Michael) Ashcroft.

The allegations against Rayner centre on the fact that she and her former husband maintained separate properties during their marriage. Ashcroft’s book focusses on left-winger Rayner purchasing her council house under Margaret Thatcher’s right to buy. It includes her explanation of her family’s living arrangements and does not make allegations about Tax irregularities. Following up on the biography, The Mail on Sunday and Guido Fawkes claim that Angela or Mark Rayner may not have paid Capital Gains Tax as legally required on the subsequent sale of the properties. The lawyer Dan Neidle of Tax Policy Associates estimates her maximum possible exposure at £1,500. It is also alleged that Rayner may have given misleading information to the electoral register about where she was living. 

As a result of complaints by Conservative MPs following the newspaper reports, HMRC and the local police say they are reviewing their initial finding that there were no issues to investigate. Rayner and the Labour party insist she has done “nothing wrong”. She says she received proper tax advice at the time of selling her home but she has declined to publish it. 

On its latest front page,The Mail on Sunday accused Rayner of “lying” on the basis of three tweets it had unearthed from 2014 and early 2015 in which she uses the word “home” about her husband’s property, with reference to her sons. It is not disputed that the boys were living primarily with their father at the time. Regular Mail columnists Dan Hodges, Richard Littlejohn and Andrew Neil have piled in on the story. Littlejohn ends his piece with the assertion: “Get your coat, girl. You’re nicked”.

The Honeytrap was exposed barely a week ago by the diligent work of two reporters, Aggie Chambre and Dan Bloom, for the Politico website. Politico is an increasingly important source of political information across the news markets in the US, UK, Canada and Germany. An offshoot of a digital newspaper founded by refugees from The Washington Post, it is now owned by Axel Springer SE, Germany’s biggest newspaper group. Politico’s main news content is available free to those who subscribe online. 

Politico did not name those targeted for “cat-phishing” or “spear-fishing” by entities, variously calling themselves “Abi” or “Charlie”. At the end of last week, William Wragg MP, labelled “a senior Tory” in journalese shorthand, confessed to The Times journalist Aubrey Allegretti that he had been in touch with “Charlie”, having encountered him on the gay dating app Grindr and had provided him with compromising images of himself and the private phone numbers of other MPs and parliamentary acquaintances. Next Dr Luke Evans MP reported that he had been the subject of an unsuccessful phishing attempt and had reported it to his local police in Leicestershire, who are currently investigating. Evans did not think Wragg would have been the source of his phone number. 

Politico said: “All the targets are men. Some are straight, several are gay. Some are Tories, some are Labour. Some are journalists, some officials. But they are all men.”  They include “a serving minister”. Reportedly Wragg is not the only one who gave up compromising material.

We don’t know the identities of most of those targeted, including the minister. We don’t know if this honeytrap was black opps by a foreign power such as Russia, China or North Korea or a squalid sex ring between Westminster acquaintances. The idea of swapping pictures of your genitals by smart phone may disgust older people but I am told that adult “sexting” on dating apps is considered entirely normal by those who are digital natives. 

The Conservative high command were quick to forgive Wragg, and seemingly anxious to close down speculation. The Chancellor Jeremy Hunt praised him for being “courageous and fulsome” in his admission. Wragg has stepped down from his roles at both vice chairman of the 1922 Committee of Tory MPs and chair of the Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee. However the Conservative whip has not been withdrawn and there is no pressure on him to resign immediately. He had already announced his intention of leaving parliament at the next election. He will be only 36 or 37, but his marginal Manchester Hazel Grove Constituency is under threat from the Liberal Democrats. 

Inevitably, Conservative party unity did not last long. The Boris Johnson era cabinet minister, Nadine Dorries, attacked Wragg for helping bring down her boss by exposing the alleged gay groping activities of the former Deputy Chief Whip, Chris Pincher. “Pincher – a honey trap to bring down those protecting Boris”, she tweeted, “Wragg was at the heart of it.”  Subsequently, Dame Andrea Jenkyns, one of the Tory MPs who has called for Rishi Sunak to be replaced, claimed she had received and reported identical WhatsApp phishing. She wants action against Wragg. “How is it brave?”, she fumed, “Why are they protecting Wragg? It’s bizarre”. 

The freshest revelation on the Honeytrap came from Henry YorkeThe Sunday Times’ deputy political editor, who reported that he had exchanged messages on his work phone with “an attractive woman, apparently called Charlie” before shutting down an obvious scammer. 

How many more were targeted? Who are they? And how many were less shrewd than Yorke?

With so many questions about the Honeytrap unanswered, the media sharks on Sunday might have been expected to indulge in a feeding frenzy over the Honeytrap. But no. It was the Mail on Sunday on Rayner which set the pace. Laura Kuensberg on BBC TV did not even ask the Deputy Prime Minister Oliver Dowden about the Honeytrap. Both she and Trevor Philips on Sky News raised Rayner at length with Dowden and David Lammy, Labour’s spokesperson of the day. 

On Monday The Daily Mail broadened its attack to the Labour leader with the front page splash “Rayner’s Making A Fool Of You, Keir – Scandal over deputy’s home is ‘corrosive to your reputation’, Tory chairman tells Starmer”. Is Angela Rayner really that much of a liability to Labour’s hopes? Many Conservative supporters would certainly like to see it that way. Sir Keir Starmer started his week accusing the Tories of “chasing a smear”. 

In hyping the Rayner story and underplaying the Honeytrap – the general public may conclude that the old mainstream media are the ones making fools of themselves. 

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