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The Whittingdale file: a plea for better journalism

It's a mystery as to why the national newspapers chose not to expose a juicy story about the UK culture secretary. But claiming that his policies were 'influenced' by the 'suppression' of the story is pure conjecture.

John Whittingdale (centre). Credit: John Stillwell / PA Archive

I am all in favour of good investigative journalism. Why so many newspapers have passed up the opportunity to expose John Whittingdale’s private life is something of a mystery, given their past behaviour – perhaps Hacked Off should be cheering such restraint! But the suppositions in James Cusick’s article are at times so off-key that one can only conclude it is part of a different tradition of journalism – innuendo – rather than anything solidly based. Let me run through the two dozen errors in his piece.

How could Whittingdale be open to blackmail when he was open about his connection with Olivia King and half of Fleet Street knew about it?

How could he be the Culture Secretary Rupert Murdoch dreamed of when he was the chair of the Culture Media and Sport Committee that summoned Rupert and James Murdoch to their “most humble” day of interrogation, and published a report depicting James as “unfit” to run a major corporation?

What policy decisions has Whittingdale taken that have been influenced by the prospect of exposure of his private life (something dozens of outlets, including Byline, could have inflicted on him at any time)? And how could policy decisions about the BBC come into this calculation? The likelihood of the BBC publishing this story must always have been remote.

Whittingdale has not made “serial attacks” on the BBC’s “independence and influence”. The Committee he used to chair – which was, by the way, far more critical of the BBC under the chairmanship of his predecessor, Gerald Kaufman – published several reports on the BBC, but none that ever took aim at the BBC’s independence and influence. The most recent, in February last year, was warmly welcomed by the BBC.

The so-called “assault on the BBC’s finances” in July 2015 actually resulted in the BBC being better off financially. The 2010 “ambush” – which did indeed reduce the BBC’s spending power by some £500 million a year – had nothing to do with Whittingdale: indeed his Committee criticised its substance and timing.

It is highly likely that any Culture Secretary in a Conservative government would have blocked the penal clauses in the post-Leveson legislation, which was effectively pushed through parliament by a LibDem/Labour alliance, half-heartedly supported by the Tories at the time.

Likewise, virtually all senior Conservatives are willing to give IPSO a chance to prove itself, as were both Whittingdale’s most recent predecessors (Maria Miller and Sajid Javid).

There is, therefore, nothing to be gained from “keeping Whittingdale in place”: any successor would take the same views. Indeed, if the UK votes “remain” in June, he is likely to be replaced in the post-referendum re-shuffle.

If Whittingdale was quite happy to take Olivia King to tea in the Commons, why would Cameron be taking a risk in appointing him to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport?

There was always a prospect of the Commons select committee investigating MGN phone-hacking (and they may still do so): Whittingdale himself would not necessarily have been able either to initiate or block such an inquiry – his committee was cross-party, without a Conservative majority. Labour’s Tom Watson was one of the more influential committee members, and was always keen to expose phone-hacking.

To say that Whittingdale was “no ordinary backbencher” misses the point: he had ceased to have any front bench responsibilities (which were, in any event, always very junior) back in 2005. He was a backbencher by choice, having opted for a committee chairmanship. The prospect of ever joining the cabinet or having much influence was remote.

Whether Whittingdale (or any senior Tory of his vintage) ever felt strongly about introducing a Royal Charter for the press, and cost-incentives to sign up to it, I do not know. For a time, loyalty to Oliver Letwin (who dreamed up the Charter idea) prevailed during the coalition period. But there was always an undercurrent of resistance, and Whittingdale was one of the first to argue from the backbenches that the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) deserved a chance to prove itself. The notion that this was somehow connected to an investigation into his private life is pure speculation, without a shred of evidence.

Likewise with the “continuing attacks on the BBC”: everyone condemned the six-figure pay-offs to redundant executives (including new BBC DG Tony Hall), and the CMS Committee inquiry into “every aspect” of the BBC was exactly what the committee was there to undertake. Its impressive cross-party report was, as I said earlier, welcomed by the BBC. To describe the process as “threatening”, and then invoke James Murdoch, is comical – how about citing Adolf Hitler (another critic of the BBC)?

There was indeed excitement within the Tory press when Whittingdale became Culture Secretary (though the notion that his first meeting with Cameron had one item on the agenda – the BBC – is pure fiction). The likes of the Mail, the Times and the Telegraph anticipated just what journalists like James does: some kind of attack on the BBC. Indeed, within seconds of the publication of Whittingdale’s Green Paper on the BBC, the Corporation itself inaccurately attacked it as such. The reaction of the Tory papers was more accurate: nothing radical, all very open-ended, something of a damp squib (that is, if you had mistakenly expected an attack). It is simply and flatly untrue to say “the implied promise that the BBC would have its authority and power cut back was delivered soon after the Conservative victory”.

The same can be said of the claim that “throughout 2014 Whittingdale continued to attack the BBC”. It was not Whittingdale, but his CMS Committee, that took evidence that year, and concluded that the licence fee was “unsustainable”. That the licence fee is “worse than the poll tax” and “hits the poor hardest” is simply a statement of fact (Greg Dyke used to say the same before he became BBC DG). I have been arguing for replacement of the licence fee for 30 years, on grounds of fairness, efficiency and revenue protection: far from that constituting an “attack” on the BBC, better financing is designed to protect the BBC. In any event, Whittingdale has always conceded that the licence fee has years more ahead of it, and raised no objection to the (flawed) Perry Report rejecting decriminalisation of licence fee evasion (a policy that had already been endorsed by his CMS Committee and both houses of parliament). Whittingdale has even promised to extend the licence fee to iPlayer use, as requested by the BBC. Can we please have some facts in what purports to be a journalistic article?

As for the February 2015 report, this came from the CMS Committee, not the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. If such reports did not ask “what is the BBC there to do?”, the question would arise as to what these committees are for (the Lords Communications Committee asked very similar questions). The criticism of the proposed BBC One +1 channel was actually endorsed by the BBC Trust, which rejected its launch for the same reasons as the CMS Committee had offered: there was already a much more comprehensive catch-up service available.

Yet more innuendo is on offer from James in noting that George Osborne met with Rupert Murdoch “before the BBC was told it faced severe budget cut-backs”. The notion that Murdoch would have nothing better to talk to Osborne about than the BBC is curious. And, as it turned out, Osborne made so many concessions to the BBC in his deal with Tony Hall that the feared impact of progressive transfer of funding free TV licences for the over-75s was replaced by a realisation that the BBC would enter 2020 better off than it entered 2015. Or perhaps that was what Murdoch was urging Osborne to do!

The claim that various newspapers had a “vested interest” in keeping Whittingdale in place, and so repeatedly suppressed the story about Olivia King, simply collapses on two fronts. First, most of the “suppression” occurred before Whittingdale was “in place”, back before the election. The notion that he needed to be preserved as CMS Committee chair is far-fetched: what difference would it make if (as has now happened) Jesse Norman had become chairman? Secondly, you have to assume that all the different papers conspired together: otherwise each was taking the risk that someone else would publish. By the way, has Whittingdale resigned since Byline (and oD) broke the story?

Whittingdale has not given himself “unfettered executive power over the press” by refusing to implement the cost penalties clauses included in the 2013 legislation. Veteran civil liberties QC Lord Lester has condemned these clauses as unenforceable in law because of their transparent unfairness, and there is no doubt that all the major press groups would therefore ignore the clauses (and perhaps even invite a test case so as to have them rejected by the Supreme Court). The only papers that might be deterred by the clauses from running any investigative journalism are regional and local titles, lacking the resources to fight a long legal battle. It is inconceivable that Whittingdale would have taken this decision without consulting Cameron: ergo, any replacement for him would most likely take the same view.

As for Part 2 of Leveson, almost no-one – including Leveson – seems to have much of an appetite for such a circus. I am sure that Whittingdale could readily provide reasons (including cost) if anyone asked. It is an issue that barely registers on the Westminster Richter scale.

Finally, we come to three mistakes in the same sentence: “Whittingdale recently suggested he should appoint the members of the BBC Trust”. Oh dear. Whittingdale, of course, already approves (after a complex public appointments procedure) all members of the BBC Trust, just as all governments at all times appointed all members of the BBC Governors before they were replaced by the Trust. What actually happened last month was that a report from Sir David Clementi (former Deputy Governor of the Bank of England) suggested that, if the Trust were itself replaced, and a combined board of executives and non-executives were formed to run the BBC, not all the non-executives should be government appointees (he did not spell out exactly how these others would be selected). Obviously, complex issues of independence and governance arise, and you can follow the debate in the columns of Media Guardian.

Whittingdale, whilst politely welcoming the Clementi report, noted that no decision had yet been made about a unitary board, let alone about how appointments to one might be made, but confirmed support for the historic practice of all appointments to the BBC governing body being made by ministers. His definitive view will not emerge until the White Paper in the summer, and even if he survives the post-referendum re-shuffle, he will hold a consultation on the White Paper before any final decisions are taken. To impute some dark and sinister power grab to off-the-cuff comments supporting the status quo system in some hypothetical future just seems miles over the top.

I have no idea why Amol Rajan at the Independent, Geordie Greig at the Mail on Sunday, Dominic Mohan at the Sun and Paul Dacre at the Daily Mail all chose not to publish the Olivia King story. Nor do I object to openDemocracy publishing it, especially in this puzzling context. But the combination of innuendo and ignorance on display in James’ article does no-one any credit. Hacked Off, where are you when we need you?

About the author

David Elstein is Chairman of openDemocracy's Board. He is also Chairman of the Broadcasting Policy Group. 


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