Leading article

A feral, all-powerful press? The Whittingdale story disproves that

Anti-free-speech conspiracy theories are impossible to reconcile with the sorry state of Fleet Street

16 April 2016

9:00 AM

16 April 2016

9:00 AM

For weeks, Westminster has been full of rumours about the private life of a certain cabinet member. It was said he had started to visit a dominatrix in Earl’s Court but ended up falling in love with her and taking her to official functions. Like a Westminster remake of the film Pretty Woman, in fact, but with the Culture Secretary, John Whitting-dale, playing the part of Richard Gere. There was much comment in Parliament about this, and jokes about what London is coming to if an MP has to travel all the way to Earl’s Court for such services, when they used to be available a stone’s throw away from the Commons. And on it went.

The story did not appear in the press for a simple reason: it was, in most part, an invention. Politicians gossip like fishwives, and political journalists know them to be deeply unreliable sources about each other’s private lives. Approached by the BBC, Mr Whittingdale was forced to disclose the rather embarrassing truth: about two years ago, he met a woman of a similar age on a dating website. He discovered later that she was a sex worker, so he ended the relationship after six months. Four newspapers had established as much but, seeing no public interest, decided not to publish.

All of this has infuriated Hacked Off, the pressure group that lost its campaign for state regulation of the press. The episode undermines their portrayal of British newspapers as being staffed by ‘feral beasts’. The phrase is Tony Blair’s, but it encapsulates the old cliché that the press gleefully publishes all manner of salacious gossip, true or not, and that only the sober hand of government can impose proper standards. Now, Hacked Off is making the opposite case: that a prudish British press is violating the public’s right to know about who John Whittingdale met on Match.com.

Labour’s demands that Whittingdale recuses himself from the issue of press regulation is intended to develop Hacked Off’s conspiracy theory that Whittingdale has gone easy on the press because he was being blackmailed. It overlooks a crucial point, though: the Culture Secretary has no power over the press, nor does anyone else in the government. Britain’s press is free, and journalists can be as rude as they like to ministers without fear of reprisal. There is quite simply no mechanism of reprisal — because the press fought off David Cameron’s disgraceful attempt to impose press regulation.

It is now three years since this magazine declared it would have no part in the government’s proposed Royal Charter on press regulation. All other newspapers made the same decision. They did so to preserve an important principle: that the press should never become the government’s train set. It was Whittingdale’s predecessor, Sajid Javid, who decided the government would draw a veil over the Leveson inquiry and drop any ambition to regulate the press. By the time Whittingdale arrived in his job, the issue was off the agenda.

It’s true that Whittingdale could have decided to go after the press a second time, apropos of nothing, with a new Leveson inquiry or perhaps fines to punish newspapers. But he did not, because his predecessor had declared the whole agenda to be dead — or, as he put it, ‘Our job is done as a government.’ Hacked Off had hoped for a second Leveson inquiry, supposedly to crawl over the mass criminality exposed by the first.

But as it turned out, there have been hardly any prosecutions and no evidence of systematic illegality among journalists. There has been no great let-off for the press under Whittingdale.

The circulation of British newspapers has fallen by a third since the hacking scandal broke. The idea of an all-powerful press deciding which politicians to make and which to destroy is now impossible to reconcile with the sorry state of Fleet Street.The Independent has disappeared from the newsagents; others will follow. The Sun and the Daily Mail, Britain’s two most popular newspapers, are now bought by just 3 per cent of the adult population; just 6 per cent say they get their news from each title. The latest Ofcom report shows where the power now lies: some 48 per cent get their news from BBC1 alone. Even when it comes to the written word, the BBC is four times bigger than any newspaper, with 23 per cent saying they use its website and apps.

How sad it would have been if, against such a backdrop, the press had lost its nerve and signed up to Cameron’s Royal Charter. Had this happened, editors would genuinely have had reason to fear the wrath of the Culture Secretary. For those interested in the wilder theories about Mr Whittingdale, there’s always social media — a forum in which conspiracy theorists are advancing with ever-more improbable scenarios.

Sir Alan Moses, chairman of the Independent Press Standards Organisation, put it well when he addressed the London Press Awards earlier this month. Now more than ever, he said, ‘We need edited journalism — and not the unedited flatulence of the online troll.’ To this, we should add the fantasies of Hacked Off and its associated conspiracy theorists. Once again, the British free press has been shown to be more responsible than its enemies.

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Show comments
  • Enoch Powell

    Good article that puts the lie to the Left.

  • LG

    Hacked off isn’t complaining that the press didn’t publish, it’s complaining that John Whittingdale was an ‘asset’ of the press, with the threat of publishing held over him, while he was responsible for decisions about press regulation.
    He should have resigned as soon as he knew the press had the story. Not because he was in the pocket of the press, but because that was how it would look. As indeed it does.
    Justice not only needs to be done, it also needs to appear to be done.

    • MC

      He should have resigned? Why. He did nothing wrong. The press had nothing ‘on him’.
      Shocking BBC tripe

      • LG

        “Nothing on him”?
        Except knowing he’d been shagging a prostitute for 6 months. Even if he didn’t.
        You don’t think that might be a little embarrassing for a government minister?

        • Trailblazer10


    • Mr.D.Advocate

      If politicians resigned because ‘the press had a story’ there’d be no politicians left.

      ‘with the threat of publishing held over him…’

      Unless you somehow have clear evidence that Whittingdale was being blackmailed or coerced by members of the press with ‘threats’ then it’s simply a case of put up and shut up.

      All the guy has done is date someone who he dropped before he assumed his post. I’d much rather that than to see Chris Bryant plastered across the internet in his underpants ( he didn’t resign).

      Left wing conspiracy fantasies aren’t evidence.

      • LG

        I concede that perhaps he should not have resigned. However, he should have made a public statement about it as soon as he knew the press had the story. That way we could be sure that he was not being influenced by fear of the revelation surfacing if he didn’t play ball with the press.
        There is a clear perception that he could have been influenced. Whether he was or not, is not the matter at issue.
        And the Spectator’s attempt to paint the issue as Hacked Off complaining about the press not printing is disingenuous. That’s not their complaint. This is simply the press backing up the press.
        How you see this as a left/right issue is beyond me. Do you only see things in two dimensions?

  • Dariusere93887

    More women have come forward to the press with historical allegations that John Whittingdale went on a date with them.

    Shadow Home Secretary called in Parliament for a single, overarching public inquiry into the claims

    • HHGeek

      You might want to review your comment template – this one’s a bit tired.

  • Glen

    This ‘affair’ says as much about the behaviour of the media as it does about JW imho.

  • MC

    Similar to tax affairs, MPs must now publish a full list of all their sexual affairs.
    Hacked Off have undermined everything they stood for.
    As a long standing supporter of the BBC accept that the end is in sight. There are more BBC journos chasing agendas than worthy stories. If the trustees fail to act this year on politically PC driven BeeBos I would support a referendum to close the BBC.

  • rosebery

    This is simple. Whittingdale is liked by the media barons because he’s soft on implementing the full Levison, so they want to keep him in place. In normal circumstances a Tory Minister who had had such a relationship would have been well-monstered by now, but the papers soft-pedalled in a way they wouldn’t have done for anyone else halfway prominent doing the same thing. Nothing ‘Hacked-Off’ says or does changes the implication that Whittingdale is a client of the press, so he should recuse and resile from the role of implementing Levinson fully, to nullify the connection. Even for the hard of thinking, this is not complicated.

    • post_x_it

      “a Tory Minister who had had such a relationship would have been well-monstered by now”
      But why? What’s so scandalous about it? It’s not illegal, he hasn’t broken any rules, and he’s not married so hasn’t cheated on anyone. It’s pretty weak stuff for a ‘monstering’.

  • Father Todd Unctious

    Mr Whippingdale likes lashings of coverage. Let’s hope he’s not getting beaten up about it. He should stay chained to his desk.
    Nobody believes you can accidentally date a dominatrix for seven months and know nothing of her career choice. Another Tory misremembers his past.

  • Trailblazer10

    “some 48 per cent get their news from BBC1 alone. Even when it comes to
    the written word, the BBC is four times bigger than any newspaper, with
    23 per cent saying they use its website and apps.”

    That is worrying.

    • HHGeek

      But nowhere near as terrifying as, “The Sun and the Daily Mail, Britain’s two most popular newspapers”.

      • Jacobi

        The most worrying thing of the lot is that about 90% couldn’t give a toss. They are the fodder which the manipulators use.
        Maybe Trumpism will shift that?