Press and privacy: In England, what a married public figure does with five paid dominatrices is his own business

Since the 2008 Max Mosley privacy judgment it has been a central tenet of UK privacy law that what a married public figure does behind closed doors is between him and his five paid dominatrices.
 
So it is perhaps not surprising that The Sun, Sunday People, Mail on Sunday and Independent backed away from writing about single Culture Secretary John Whittingdale's much less colourful private life.
 
At first glance, MP takes 'hooker' to public events does look like a story. So I can see why they investigated it.
 
But it seems that when Whittingdale was "fronted up" he said it was news to him what the woman did for a living. He had met her on a dating website and ended the relationship shortly afterwards.
 
So the story became: 'Unmarried MP dated woman who has worked as a dominatrix'. 
 
It may also be that editors feared that there could be an element of entrapment.
 
It is true that Whittingdale has been a dream Culture Secretary as far as Fleet Street goes: tough on the BBC and soft on press regulation. So it may be that the fact editors liked the man also influenced their thinking. 
 
But the crucial point is that there was no story here apart from some fairly lightweight tittle tattle.
 
 
He gave me a list of stories which the press has covered in the past which suggests to him there was foul play afoot in keeping this one secret.
 
He didn't go into details, but I will to show why each one was more serious:
 
David Mellor and Antonia de Sancha (1992)
 
The then heritage minister was married, this was 1992 and there were also suggestions that he inappropriately accepted free holidays.
 
Tim Yeo (1994)
 
He fathered a child through an extra-marital affair, this was 1994 and he had previously spoken out about the importance of reducing the number of single-parent families.
 
Maria Miller (2014)
 
This previous Culture Secretary was deemed worthy of the front-page treatment when she resigned in 2014.  But she had over-claimed £5,800 in expenses and handled it extremely badly, issuing a terse 32-second apology to the Commons.
 
Brooks Newmark (2014)
 
Admittedly he was a pretty obscure MP. But he sent a reporter a picture of his private member via the internet. And he was married.
 
James Cusick is a serious investigative journalist who looked at the cover-up element of this story for The Independent. He reports on Byline that the story was spiked by editor Amol Rajan around the same time that Whittingdale said he was not minded to commence Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act, in October 2015.
 
The timing of that is unfortunate to say the least.
 
This was an extremely significant decision for the press, removing the main incentive for newspapers to sign up to a Royal Charter-backed system of press regulation. Section 40 means publishers who aren't members of an approved regulator face paying both sides' costs even if they win libel cases.
 
But this would have been a Government decision, so the idea that Whittingdale was influenced by the "sword of Damocles" hanging over him is ludicrous.
 
Cusick has not been told why his investigation was spiked and reports one "senior editor" who believes The Independent was coerced by its landlord, Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday publisher Associated Newspapers.
 
This is a serious allegation. 
 
But my belief remains that it is difficult to beat the press up over its failure to publish a story which (in my view) was a breach of privacy and lacked a public interest justification.

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