Hacked Off: Why we are not hypocrites over stance on John Whittingdale's privacy

Evan Harris is joint executive director of Hacked Off

Ever since that well known instrument of press-muzzling, Private Eye magazine, broke the Whittingdale story in the national press, the newspapers have turned on Hacked Off as reported by Press Gazette yesterday and a predictable two-page spread in the Mail today.

This is for daring to question whether something smells rotten about the fact that a Culture Secretary has reversed his own and Government policy on press regulation to the benefit of the anti-Leveson newspapers, in the knowledge that those newspapers were withholding a story on his private life. Especially a story which raised question marks over registerable foreign trips and especially the sort of newspapers who usually don’t require a public interest justification to publish.

The Private Eye story and the subsequent Newsnight story by John Sweeney followed up the investigative journalism of James Cusick and Cahal Milmo, both formerly of the Independent. The first we knew of the story’s appearance in the media was when it was published on Byline two weeks running. It should be noted that we did not re-publish any of the Byline articles nor tweet the links. We gave our view publicly only when we got a call from Newsnight the very evening that it was to break the story in the broadcast media.

None of the editors of the People, Sun and Mail on Sunday – who all made the decision ever since 2013 not to run the story about the Culture Secretary – has broken cover to explain why they so uncharacteristically held back, but instead all of them have made concerted attacks, often personal, on Hacked Off, Jim Cusick or the BBC. Many of these – in the characteristic cowardly style of the bully – are attributed to anonymous sources. 

Of course these venomous attacks on Hacked Off and those reporters who expose or allege press industry wrongdoing are reminiscent of the same vicious response when Nick Davies, James Hanning and others broke stories about a hacking conspiracy which the press industry denied; and again when we campaigned for the recommendations of the independent Leveson Report. Leveson's moderate proposals were agreed by Parliament after a cross party-agreement which was signed by David Cameron.

A key element of those proposals was contained in section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act. This was supported by the then chairman of the Commons Media Select Committee, John Whittingdale. So was the decision to proceed with the second part of the Leveson Inquiry once criminal trials had concluded.  Since being made Culture Secretary, Mr Whittingdale has reversed his position on both these issues and intervened in the agreed arrangements.  This clear pattern of policy reversal is set out here. Interestingly the argument for the press against the allegation that Mr Whittingdale has started singing their tune is that he has always been their man. But the facts and the record show a clear reversal.

The reports published by Byline, OpenDemocracy and Private Eye ask about:

  • whether decisions by three tabloids to hold back from publishing the story relating to Mr Whittingdale's private life were made in order to obtain and sustain influence over the Select Committee Chair

  • Whether the possession of this damaging information on the Culture Secretary by the press could potentially have been a factor in his otherwise unexplained choice to intervene on press regulation and to go back on agreed Government policy

  • Whether the decision of the Independent (never explained even to Jim Cusick and Cahal Milmo) not to publish a further story about the failure of the three tabloids to publish was based on a veto by that newspaper’s landlords – the Daily Mail – because they regarded the Culture Secretary as an “asset” as claimed by these two senior journalists.

We believe this affair highlights the conflict of interest involved in any minister giving themselves a say over issues of press regulation – something which the Leveson recommendations were precisely designed to avoid but Mr Whittingdale has proceeded to do nonetheless. Given what we know, that Whittingdale knew the press were withholding this story on him, the prospect that Mr Whittingdale’s decisions to intervene and go back on Government policy were in any way influenced by the fear of this story running would be the very definition of a public interest investigation.

The opposition has called for John Whittingdale to recuse himself from decisions on press regulation. He can do that simply by commencing section 40 and confirming that Part 2 of Leveson will follow automatically when prosecutions are over. The idea that any minister should hold discretionary executive power over financial penalties or protection for newspapers based on regulation, and whether to cancel an investigation of a press-police cover up, was anathema to both Hacked Off and the press industry at Leveson. For some reason the industry now likes the idea of a single politician controlling their fate.

For the avoidance of doubt, and the correction of lies, we remain clear that politicians have the right to a personal life and that – despite newspapers continuing to breach privacy without a shred of public interest justification – to publish such a story needs public interest justification. Jim Cusick argued that there were such justifications and it is noteworthy that the question of whether there was adequate registration of a foreign trip paid for by a media company by Mr Whittingdale has – 30 months later on from their decision to shelve the story – been deemed worthy by the Mirror Group of investigation on the front page and 2 inside pages. While their leader page on the same day attacked Hacked Off for suggesting there was anything to investigate!

But the decision of whether to publish is one for journalists, and unlike proprietors, Hacked Off do not tell newspapers what to write about. This story is about the motivations of the newspapers who didn’t publish and, more importantly than that, the motivations of the Culture Secretary who caved in to press policy demands.

Hypocrisy does exist in this debate, but it lies with those newspapers who devote front pages to calls for the right to publish private information (three-in-a-bed stories) about an entertainer even when a judge has ruled there is insufficient public interest, while arguing that press-supportive politicians have an absolute right to privacy over their personal lives. 

We have no doubt that the pattern of vitriolic abuse aimed at those of us working with people affected by press abuse by certain sections of the press will continue. But opinion polls show that the attacks on independent regulation by the press are not believed by the public, even by their own readers. For our part we will continue steadfastly to press for the Government to keep their promises on Leveson implementation, the commencement of section 40 and for a response from David Cameron to the letter by victims of press abuse.  The more the press barons and their lackeys attack us, the stronger we grow.

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