Hacked Off founder says press had 'obligation' to write about John Whittingdale's private life

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On Friday, Press Gazette's editor wrote that journalists did not report on Culture Secretary John Whittingdale's previous relationship with a woman who had apparently worked as a dominatrix for reasons of ethics and news judgement. Hacked Off founder and journalism professor Brian Cathart takes another view

The Editor’s Blog of Press Gazette last week disputed the suggestion, aired on the website Byline, that there had been a conspiracy among national newspapers to cover up aspects of the private life of the Culture Secretary, John Whittingdale, and that this might be connected to his decision not to commence Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act.

James Cusick, former political correspondent of the Independent, has since added considerable detail to this story in a further article on Byline.

The editor of Press Gazette wrote last week: "I don’t believe there is a conspiracy afoot here." And, relying on "Fleet Street insiders", he argued that the story about Whittingdale had been spiked on ethical and practical grounds.

This idea is not credible for two main reasons. First, there were public interest grounds for publication, meaning not only that there was no legal barrier but also that, ethically, journalists would normally have felt an obligation to bring it to the attention of the public. 

And second, a refusal to publish a story about a government minister having had a relationship with a dominatrix is, as we all know, wholly out of character for several of our national papers (while the others would normally follow up such a story with relish). 

Before going any further, let’s make this plain: politicians, like everyone else, have a right to privacy. What is at issue here, as in the Editor’s Blog last week, is the question of why national newspapers chose not to publish a story they investigated and stood up.

Start with the law. These newspapers were free to publish the story about Whittingdale without legal risk, as their lawyers must have told them. Cusick’s narrative casts up four potential public interest justifications of precisely the kind to which national newspapers normally have recourse in such cases.

  1. Whittingdale is a member of the Cornerstone group of Conservative MPs, who stress their commitment to ‘traditional values’ and ‘traditional marriage’.
  2. His voting record in Parliament shows him routinely opposing liberalisation of Britain’s sex laws.
  3. In 2010, as chairman of the Commons culture committee, he questioned Max Mosley about his involvement in the S&M scene and said: "You know the appetite of the British press for stories of this kind. Had you not always felt this was a time bomb that sooner or later was going to go off?"

Any one of these would normally be seized upon by national newspapers as evidence of hypocrisy. The three together would normally be presented to readers as cast-iron proof of it

The fourth possible public interest justification relates to money. Cusick writes that there is at least a question to be answered about whether Whittingdale, then chair of the Commons culture select committee, should have declared in the Register of Members’ Interests the paid-for trip to Amsterdam which he made in company with the woman in question.

(This is not to mention the fifth and most compelling justification, which is that the story shows that a Cabinet minister was open to potential influence by an industry that fell within his department’s purview.)  

No plausible case can be made, therefore, that the Whittingdale story was spiked on the grounds that editors feared it was legally risky in terms of privacy.

What other grounds could there have been? The "Fleet Street insiders" consulted by the editor of Press Gazette put forward the following:

  • Whittingdale is not married
  • He has not broken the law
  • He has not broken parliamentary rules
  • He has not portrayed a false image
  • He is not high-profile enough to ring bells with readers
  • The relationship finished before he became a Cabinet minister.

Let’s take those in turn.

He is not married. True, but are we seriously to believe that the Sunday People, The Sun and the Mail on Sunday have decided as a matter of principle that a single man in public life who had a relationship with a dominatrix is not subject to exposure?

He has not broken the law. Also true. But again the national press does not normally accept this as a threshold – in the past week, after all, most of these papers have attacked the Prime Minister about his personal finances even though no one suggests he broke the law.

He has not broken parliamentary rules. That remains to be seen: there are at least questions to be answered about the registration and declaration of that paid-for trip to Amsterdam. Normally we would expect journalists to ask them.

He has not portrayed a false image. His voting record, his membership of Cornerstone and his public remarks to Max Mosley suggest that, by the standards normally applied at many national papers, he can indeed be accused of portraying a false image.

He is not high-profile enough to ring bells with readers. When Maria Miller was Culture Secretary most of the national press felt she was high-profile enough to be worthy of front-page denunciation. Indeed the list of politicians who have been targets of press exposes despite even greater obscurity than Whittingdale and Miller is a very long one, and includes for example Brooks Newmark MP

The relationship apparently finished before he became a Cabinet minister. Even if they had felt he was not worth exposing when he was a senior backbencher and select committee chair, editors were still free to run the story when he was promoted in 2015. Are we being asked to believe that editors now take the view that events from a few months past are ancient history not worth dwelling upon? After all, David Cameron’s father died in 2010 and his actions are still thought worthy of attention. 

It is clear from the above that no legal obstacle prevented the Sunday People, the Mail on Sunday and The Sun from mounting a campaign at any time in the past 18 months that would have seriously damaged the career of John Whittingdale.

It is equally clear that any suggestion that the story was spiked because of ethical scruples is so inconsistent with normal recent behaviour as to be beyond consideration, and that the possible ethical reasons put forward by ‘Fleet Street insiders’ hold no water. You only have to look at the desperate thirst of at least two of the same newspaper groups in the past few days to report the details of a married celebrity’s ‘three-in-a-bed’ activities to see the normal instincts of such editors at work.

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