Hacked Off founder accuses press of double standards over 'not shocking' Keith Vaz revelations

Keith Vaz MP (Credit: Reuters)

Hacked Off founder and journalism academic Brian Cathcart has taken issue with my blog post explaining why the media exposed Keith Vaz MP but (at least initially) kept quiet about John Whittingdale’s affair with a dominatrix.

My point was that while neither man apparently broke the law, Vaz is in a different category because he paid for sex and was married.

Cathcart says my argument “doesn’t wash”., adding: “No 21st century journalist could possibly be shocked to learn that people pay for sex and commit adultery, still less could they believe that they might constitute public interest justifications for the intrusion required to prove them.

“Why is the editor of Press Gazette putting forward such an argument? Because the alternative is to admit what I suspect most people recognise without needing a moment’s reflection: newspapers were delighted to expose Vaz, but the Whittingdale story, though similar, was one which, for reasons far removed from morality, they chose to withhold from the public.”

The Vaz story was published by the Sunday Mirror. Its sister title The People (along with The Sun and Mail on Sunday) knew then Culture Secretary John Whittingdale went on dates with a woman who had worked as a paid dominatrix but decided not to run the story.

The argument goes that because Whittingdale was soft on press regulation and tough on the BBC, it suited Fleet Street to keep embarrassing disclosures about his private life secret.

At the time I said Whittingdale was not a story because:

  • He was not married
  • He had not broken the law
  • He had not portrayed a false image
  • He was not a figure who is high profile enough to ring many bells with readers
  • The relationship apparently finished in any case before he became a Cabinet Minister (he was chair of the Commons culture select committee at the time).

Cathcart writes on the Inforrm blog: “If you apply the same standards to Vaz as he [me] suggests were applied to Whittingdale (and even on some of these criteria the papers would have to have been pretty generous to the then Media Secretary) you will find it very hard to justify publication.

“…Vaz was never a Cabinet minister and though he was a select committee chairman that had also been Whittingdale’s position before his promotion.

“Vaz is certainly no more prominent than Whittingdale was, and by most measures he is less so. Whether Vaz portrayed a false image or broke parliamentary rules is just about as debatable as it was in the Whittingdale case. And nobody suggests that either man broke the law.

“That leaves adultery as the only cover for the Press Gazette editor, who throws in paying for sex too – that did not arise in the Whittingdale case.

“Almost nobody makes a fuss about adultery these days. It is doubtless as common in the newsrooms of the Sunday Mirror and the Mail on Sunday as it is in any other office. It is simply not a justification for exposure in such a case, and if you cited it in court you would be laughed at.

“As for paying for sex, that is not illegal, and while there is a strong modern case for disapproval that case tends to be made by feminists. We surely can’t be asked to believe that the Sunday Mirror and the Mail on Sunday have embraced those values.

“There is no escaping it. The Vaz case is proof, if it were needed, of a double standard in our national papers. They published their story about him and claimed a public interest justification. In the Whittingdale case they could have made almost exactly the same claims but they chose not to publish.”

He said: “These newspapers may boast that they operate in the public interest, but they only do so when it suits their own interests.”

Cathcart said his comment should not be read to imply that he disapproves of the publication of the Vaz expose.

Although he links to another blog on Inforrm which questions whether the public interest in the Sunday Mirror’s revelation outweighed Vaz’s right to privacy.

In my view the fact that Whittindale hung on to his job (and faced no real pressure to resign) has to be contrasted with the immediate resignation of Vaz from his role chairing the Commons home affairs committee.

That would clearly seem to me to put the stories into distinctly different categories.

Comments

1 thought on “Hacked Off founder accuses press of double standards over 'not shocking' Keith Vaz revelations”

  1. The article above arrives at the conclusion that the Vaz and Whittindale cases are different because one led to a resignation and the other didn’t.

    The fundamental problem with that argument is that, when the press took the decision to publish the Vaz story, they couldn’t possibly have known that it would lead to his resignation. Indeed, Mr Vaz clearly tried to hang on, but couldn’t maintain the confidence of the Committee he was chairing.

    Mr Whittingdale, on the other hand, was not in the role of a committee chairman by the time the press published his story, although he had been at the point when the press withheld the story.

    So, no, the Ponsford argument still doesn’t hold water.

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