The Sun’s scoop revealing Matt Hancock’s affair with an aide in his ministerial office while Covid restrictions were in place was an “open and shut case of public interest”, editor-in-chief Victoria Newton has said.
Describing how the story came about, Newton (pictured) said: “The newsdesk had been contacted by an angry whistleblower.”
This suggests the story was a “phone-in”. The Sun advertises for stories and touts the fact that it pays for tips, but it is not known whether money changed hands in this case.
Asked whether The Sun paid for the video on BBC Radio 4’s The Media Show, Newton said: “I’m not going to get into that. I need to protect the whistleblower.”
Newton also told the programme: “I would rather go to jail than hand their name over,” when asked about steps taken to protect the whistleblower.
Asked if she had been contacted by the police or secret service about how The Sun got the footage, Newton said no but “I am perfectly happy with how we conducted the story, how we ran it and we consulted top lawyers before we went ahead of publication”.
Meanwhile, Spectator columnist Isabel Oakeshott has revealed how she was offered the Hancock images a week before the Sun’s tipster contacted the paper’s newdesk.
On Sunday 20 June she said she was texted by a contact, “a highly successful entrepreneur” who “would have relished his part in exposing Hancock’s hypocrisy”. He sent her “a grainy image, no bigger than a postage stamp, of a man in a suit, leaning forwad to embrace a raven-haired woman in a figure-hugging dress”. The image had been sent in to turn to Oakeshott’s source from an anonymous email account.
Oakeshott said she was skeptical about the image, which did not look like Hancock, and awaited further information from the original source who then “hotfooted it to the Sun”.
Sun editor Newton said her first thoughts upon hearing the tip from her newsdesk were “bloody hell, what a story, it can’t be true”.
The tip-off came in on Wednesday last week, reporter Rob Pattinson viewed the footage on Thursday and internal and external lawyers were consulted.
Writing for the New Statesman, Newton revealed she made the call to Hancock herself on Thursday as they had spoken frequently during the pandemic about projects like the paper’s Jabs Army volunteering campaign.
“… I told him we had the story and that I was running it because the public interest was so strong,” she said. She had expected “much would be dictated” by his reaction, but did not reveal any further details of the conversation.
The Sunday Times has reported Hancock rushed home after Newton’s call at about 6pm to tell his wife he was leaving her.
The Sun held back its Friday print edition and kept the story offline until after 1am to stop any of its rivals being able to pick up the scoop.
Sales of the paper “went up considerably” on Friday and Sunday.
Newton said: “Some may have expected a pun headline on page one – a joke about sex from the best headline writers in the world. But we agreed this wasn’t an old fashioned ‘kiss and tell’ from a bygone era. This was a serious piece of responsible journalism about a cabinet minister potentially breaking the law, and behaving with extraordinary hypocrisy.”
The video was not published until Friday night because it was decided the words and pictures alone would have “enormous reach online”.
The Sun’s website went down on Friday morning for about 35 minutes. Newton said the story drove record page views, with website and app traffic “hugely up” across the whole weekend, while the video later became the most viewed in the title’s history.
Newton said: “It was a shocking video. I couldn’t believe a cabinet minister would behave like that in his government office at 3pm. Why take the risk? We knew the public would be angry about the hypocrisy.
“Sun readers had been contacting us throughout the pandemic furious about being unable to hold the hands of dying loved ones in care homes and hospitals.”
Newton compared the public response to the scoop to last year’s joint exclusive from the Mirror and the Guardian revealing Boris Johnson’s top aide Dominic Cummings had travelled from London to Durham during the first coronavirus lockdown. The story won Scoop of the Year at the British Journalism Awards in December.
Picture: News UK