When a story is about a press cover up, how it’s reported is, clearly, part of the story.
On Sunday, Byline and openDemocracy revealed that several newspapers passed up the chance to publish a juicy story about John Whittingdale MP, now culture secretary, and his relationship with a fetish escort.
Today, it is front page news, including on the Guardian, Telegraph and BBC.
Whittingdale made this statement:
'Between August 2013 and February 2014, I had a relationship with someone who I first met through Match.com. She was a similar age and lived close to me. At no time did she give me any indication of of her real occupation and I only discovered this when I was made aware that someone was trying to sell a story about me to tabloid newspapers. As soon as I discovered, I ended the relationship ...
This is an old story which was a bit embarrassing at the time. The events occurred long before I took up my present position and it has never had any influence on the decisions I have made as Culture Secretary.'
Shadow culture secretary Maria Eagle was on Sky today suggesting that Whittingdale ‘recuse’ himself from his role, until the perception that he is compromised can be dealt with, and campaigning group Hacked Off is being asked for their views, including whether Whittingdale’s private life influenced his subsequent decisions on implementing the Leveson recommendations on press regulation.
Downing Street then responded to Labour's calls for Whittingdale to withdraw from press regulation decisions:
'The prime minister has got full confidence in John Whittingdale to perform all his duties.'
What happened over the last three days?
As James Cusick sets out in his comment piece on the revelations, the story should have appeared in the Independent months ago. As former political correspondent at The Independent, he had worked on it, like journalists at the The People, The Mail on Sunday and The Sun, only to see the story pulled.
If Cusick hadn’t put his neck out, and crowd-funded on the alternative platform Byline (at the time of writing, they have £3,796 of an initial £3,000 target) the story may never have seen the light. If Private Eye - never one to tread cautiously - hadn’t picked it up a day after, it still might not have.April 12, 2016
Are the press still engaged in protecting themselves?
As our Editor in Chief Mary Fitzgerald states in her comment:
'At its heart, this isn’t a story about someone’s private life, nor a question of the suitability of one British Cabinet member for his current job, nor even the Prime Minister’s judgement in appointing him. The broader questions readers should be asking themselves – and which have parallels the world over – are about how a ‘free’ press seeks to manage information to suit its own interests.'
A big part of managing information, in this case, is not talking about how it got out. Ironically, there has been seen some theatrical in-fighting around the BBC as the source, with former tabloid editor Neil Wallis accusing the BBC of a "conspiracy" against newspapers, with little mention of Byline, James Cusick or openDemocracy.April 13, 2016
While the Newsnight programme last night mentioned Byline, subsequent pieces by the press have only gone back as far as the BBC or to John Whittingdale's statement.
The Mirror mentions "Top Tory John Whittingdale admitted to having had a relationship with a dominatrix last night, after weeks of speculation online."
The Telegraph gives the source as the BBC:
The Independent ran with a refreshingly honest mea culpa, the first par:
'Four newspaper groups, including The Independent, have been accused of failing to print a damaging story about the minister responsible for the regulation of the press',
and seeking comment from their editor:
'It is understood that three newspapers – The People, The Mail on Sunday and The Sun – investigated the allegations against Mr Whittingdale but decided not to publish them. The Independent then investigated why those newspapers had failed to run the story but decided itself not to publish a story.
Amol Rajan, who was editor of the print edition of The Independent and is currently on paternity leave said:
"As I said in my email to one of the sources who was demanding we publish this tale - an email I was fully aware would later be made public - I rejected this story on editorial grounds." '
But they do not mention that the original accuser is in fact James Cusick, their former political correspondent, or refer to the damning quotes in Private Eye of an unnamed Exec:
'As tenants of the Mail we cannot be seen to have taken away an asset like Whittingdale from them. We would be out on the street.'
None of the national newspapers thus far have linked to the original story, or mentioned the arguably newsworthy raising more than £3,000 in crowdfunding.
The Byline and openDemocracy stories have been widely shared on Twitter and Facebook however, as has recoginition that it was left to 'alternative' media to break a public interest story:
Please read Mary Fitzgerald's piece on https://t.co/5hAvFsjOHy "How Free is Our Press" about UK Press hushing up Whittingdale sex scandal— John Cleese (@JohnCleese) April 11, 2016April 13, 2016April 10, 2016 April 13, 2016 April 12, 2016 April 13, 2016 April 13, 2016
Since the story gained such traction, Byline has announced plans to renovate and expand, positioning themselves, as their tagline 'Nothing between you and the news' implies, as a bulwark against an increasingly untrustworthy mainstream press in the UK:
'Because of the dysfunction of the media, and in particular the British press, we've inadvertently become known as the place which will publish stories the rest of the media will not - particularly about them ....
...In our first year we are probably more remembered for Graham Johnson's revelations about Greg Miskiw, the master of the dark arts: or the live court coverage of the Sun trials by Martin Hickman; the Andy Coulson perjury trial by James Doleman: or Peter Jukes' digging over the Daniel Morgan Murder. The new revelations about press misrule by Jim Cusick and Nick Mutch are yet another sorry chapter in this sad saga...'
About this story they say:
'Many have known about the scandal for years: we've known about this scandal for six months. We hoped the media would clean up its act. But for over a week we were alone breaking this story. It was a scary place to be. Until Open Democracy, Private Eye and Newsnight stepped in gallantly to save our modesty.'
Justin Schlosberg’s piece for us welcomes Cusick to “the new cadre of whistleblowers from inside the fourth estate”. His piece warns us to “remain vigilant” as to how the story can be told or retold, remembering how the WIkileaks revelations became dominated by alleged sexual misdemeanours of Julian Assange. We can’t allow the Whittingdale story to be similarly sidetracked by arguments over the nature of the MP’s relations with Olivia King.
Scholsberg also mentions Cusick's former counterpart Peter Oborne, whose resignation from the Telegraph we carried on openDemocracy. Oborne's comments on his decision to resign are worth revisiting:
'The past few years have seen the rise of shadowy executives who determine what truths can and what truths can’t be conveyed across the mainstream media...
One of the consequences of this conspiracy of silence was the appointment of Andy Coulson, who has since been jailed and now faces further charges of perjury, as director of communications in 10 Downing Street.'
One of the questions raised by Cusick's story is whether appointing Whittingdale, an old friend of Cameron, was another error of judgement on the part of the prime minister.
Many believe that there is nothing to the allegations that Whittingdale’s policies as Culture Secretary or head of the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee may have been influenced by his private life. They don’t buy the “sword of Damocles” story:
Whittingdale was clear opponent of press regulation before relationship began. No evidence it affected view. https://t.co/es3uqoulq5— George Eaton (@georgeeaton) April 13, 2016
@michaelwhite Unconvinced by Whittingdale conspiracy theories. Murdoch et al wouldn't need him in their pockets to put the squeeze on Dave.— Andrew Cooper (@AndrewzCooper) April 13, 2016 April 13, 2016
openDemocracy's chairman David Elstein has written a forensic riposte to the story, but admits that the newspapers holding back is still 'something of a mystery'.
We will see if this mystery is solved. Meanwhile openDemocracy will carry on working with Byline and others – judging each story on its own merits – to ask the big questions on freedom of speech, privacy, press ownership and the relationship between political power in Britain and our media elites.