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How free is our press?

Britain’s ‘feral’ press has been mysteriously silent on a sex story involving Culture Secretary John Whittingdale, the man who decides what rules govern them and the BBC. I wonder why?

John Whittingdale, Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport speaks during the Conservative Party Conference in 2015. John Whittingdale, Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport speaks during the Conservative Party Conference in 2015. Jon Super/AP/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.

Downing Street has spent a lot of time this week fending off conflict of interest questions by claiming they are “personal” or “private” matters. On the UK Prime Minister’s offshore financial holdings revealed in the Panama Papers, this strategy has abjectly failed, culminating in protesters gathered at the gates of Downing Street, MPs calling for the the PM’s resignation and fresh revelations each day.

Yet now Downing Street is applying another “privacy” claim to urgent questions over Culture Secretary John Whittingdale’s suitability for his job, given his potentially compromised relationship with several major UK newspaper groups.

Today openDemocracy and Byline can reveal that several papers have mysteriously passed up the chance to publish a story about Whittingdale’s relationship with a 'fetish escort', at key moments when Whittingdale, first as chair of the powerful Commons select committee deciding on matters such as press regulation, and then as Culture Secretary, was taking decisions which directly affected their business interests. 

READ: The real Whittingdale scandal: a cover-up by the press 

openDemocracy has no interest whatsoever in what Whittingdale or anyone else gets up to in their personal lives. Were this story to have landed on our desk first, it’s very unlikely we would have published it. However, it’s the behaviour of the newspapers in question in reaction to this story that bears scrutiny here.

Many of the papers that were offered this story regularly publish salacious allegations about the sex lives of footballers, celebrities and politicians on the flimsiest of “public interest” grounds. So it seems oddly inconsistent that they all passed up the chance to splash on Whittingdale’s relationship with an S&M escort. This is a politician who was a member of the Cornerstone Group, a group of traditional conservatives with the motto “Faith, Flag and Family”, and whose voting record in the Commons on Britain’s sex laws, including age of consent, sexual offences or prostitution, also saw him regularly opposing any greater liberalisation.

It would be nice to think that these papers were suddenly scrupulous about the public interest, as has been claimed to the Press Gazette’s Dominic Ponsford. Or, it could be naive to accept this explanation.

It could be particularly naive given that the same newspaper groups are currently hopping mad about a court ruling barring them from revealing that a figure from from the world of entertainment has been involved in an extra-marital "threesome" with another couple, with The Daily Mail claiming on its front page that the "THE LAW IS AN ASS!" because readers of a certain print publication in the United States can read all about the same story. The judge in the celebrity case decided to bar publication partly on the grounds of the impact it would have on the celebrity couple’s young children. There are no young children involved in Whittingdale’s case.

All of this begs the obvious question: was Whittingdale, whose job involves taking major decisions on press regulation and the future of the BBC, deemed more useful to them with a potentially embarrassing story hanging over his head?

Is this why the Mail on Sunday suddenly went cold after the editor had claimed that the Whittingdale story was the type that defined great newspapers, and if the MoS backed off it had no right to call itself a newspaper? Is this also why the Independent (not a paper that prioritised sex scandals) called off a subsequent five-month investigation into why the story was not published, with one Senior Editor claiming “Whittingdale is the Mail’s asset – we can’t take that away from them”?

Whittingdale, according to one Whitehall source, became “the culture secretary Rupert Murdoch dreamt of, and the cabinet insider those who fought Brian Leveson’s recommendations [for press regulation] prayed they would get”.

Perhaps this is just a coincidence. There is no evidence that Whittingdale was ever coerced into any of the decisions he has taken as Culture Secretary. And Whittingdale did not appear at pains to hide his relationship. It’s not impossible that some newspaper executives judged the story more valuable to them than it actually was.

But anyone who cares about press freedom in this country, or the future of the BBC – fundamental issues over which Whittingdale presides and about which major decisions are due in the coming months – might wonder why Britain’s supposedly ‘feral’ press has treated this particular story quite so delicately.

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. As with Peter Oborne’s resignation from the Telegraph last year, our coverage of press bias in the last UK election, and our work to expose censorship and “information management” the world over, these questions go to the heart of democracy.

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About the author

Mary Fitzgerald is Editor-in-Chief of openDemocracy. Before joining oD she worked for Avaaz, the global campaigning organisation, and is a former Senior Editor of Prospect Magazine. She is a trustee of the human rights charity Reprieve. Her writing has appeared in the Guardian, Observer, New Statesman and others. Follow her on Twitter: @maryftz


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