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The real Whittingdale scandal: a cover up by the UK press

I spent five months with another senior journalist at the Independent newspaper investigating why other papers had shut down a story about the culture minister, only to see my editor shut the investigation down too. Here is the anatomy of a press cover-up.

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.Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron, under siege for his shifting account of the Panama Papers, is facing an imminent second front of attacks as a consequence of his decision to bring John Whittingdale into the cabinet last year.

The promotion of the former chair of the House of Commons Department of Culture, Media and Sport select committee to Culture Secretary last year means that John Whittingdale’s lengthy relationship with a professional dominatrix and fetish escort  known to leading national newspaper groups who held back from publishing any detail – left him increasingly open to potential blackmail.

Whittingdale, according to one Whitehall source, became "The culture secretary Rupert Murdoch dreamt of"   

Although there is no suggestion that Whittingdale was explicitly coerced by any of Britain’s newspaper bosses, questions inevitably arise as to whether concerns about publication of aspects of his private life influenced his policy decisions inside the Culture department.

As Culture Secretary, with a brief that includes media policy, Whittingdale has a powerful influence over press regulation, the mooted privatisation of Channel 4 and above all the future finances of the BBC.

So far his key policy decisions have included:

* Serial attacks on the BBC’s independence and influence

* Backing for the Treasury’s assault on the public service broadcaster's finances

Unilaterally blocked legislation recommended by the Leveson Inquiry into the press, passed by all three major political parties in parliament in 2013

Personal support for the press industry’s new non-Leveson compliant regulator, the Independent Press Standards Organisation, IPSO.

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 prayed they would get.” 

Keeping Whittingdale right where he is, rather than ousting him, perfectly suits those in Fleet Street who view Leveson as a commercial threat to business-as-usual.

John Whittingdale. Credit: Stefan Rousseau / PA Wire

Sources in Downing Street say the Prime Minister initially offered the job of Culture Secretary to Boris Johnson. But after the London mayor refused, Cameron, who initially doubted Whittingdale’s suitability, decided instead to give him the job after taking little or no counsel.

More than a year before the May 2015 election, Number 10, according to Westminster advisers, knew some of the raw detail newspapers held on Whittingdale’s private life.

This should have rung alarm bells when the prospect of a cabinet job was mooted in the immediate election aftermath. Instead the danger was dismissed.

Number 10 was asked this week if Mr Cameron knew his culture secretary had engaged in a relationship with a prostitute, or if John Whittingdale had been open about it to the Prime Minister before he was appointed to the cabinet. 

Downing Street said they would be making no comment on the matter, and as it related to Mr Whittingdale’s private life, it was up to him to comment.

The same sequence of detailed questions were put to Mr Whittingdale and his advisers. There was no response.

With Cameron’s reputation on the line over Panama and off-shore finances, and the outcome of the referendum on Europe looking far from clear, the political risk the PM took in appointing Whittingdale now looks like another serious misjudgment.

How Whittingdale reached the position he holds, and manages to sustain it, is an uncomfortable chapter that does little for the reputation of Britain’s press, supposed to have cleaned up its act in the fallout from hacking.

The reality? The last chance saloon of press self-regulation, as famously described by David Mellor, has been given a convenient make-over on Whittingdale’s supplicant watch.

Round One: Mirror Group and phone hacking

During a five-month long investigation at The Independent last year, it was discovered that several newspapers had got wind of Whittingdale’s relationship with a dominatrix called Olivia King. There were rumours that she had connections to the criminal underworld, but they remain as yet unsubstantiated.

The paper which mounted the first serious investigation, and put what resources they had into uncovering what was regarded as a classic tabloid tale, was the Mirror Group’s Sunday People.

In November 2103, the People’s news editor, James Saville, was contacted by a woman who was a regular source of profile stories. She offered details of Ms King’s regular job at a London sex club near Earls Court, the London Retreat, where she was alleged to use the name “Mistress Kate”. The paper was told Whittingdale and King planned to attend the 2013 MTV Europe Awards together at the Ziggo Dome in Amsterdam that month. MTV were said to have paid all the travel and hotel costs with Whittingdale invited because he was chair of the DCMS select committee.

A Mirror Group newspaper exposing Whittingdale in 2013 therefore carried a risk that he could retaliate through his committee and start an Inquiry into Mirror Group Newspapers.   

A well-known celebrity photographer is alleged to have organised a surveillance operation of the couple in Amsterdam and to have subsequently tried to sell a folio of photographs. He initially denied knowing anything about this. However, he later revised his explanation, saying the couple may have been followed, but that he had nothing to do with it.

Two weeks later the picture desk at the People used Matt Sprake, a photographer working for a daily shift-rate at the paper, to take pictures at a sports awards ceremony where Whittingdale and King were expected to attend together. The main guest at the SportsAid Ball was the Duchess of Cambridge, Kate Middleton

Culture secretary John Whittingdale photographed with prostitute Olivia King. Culture secretary John Whittingdale photographed with prostitute Olivia King. Credit: Matt Sprake

Pictures of Whittingdale and King arriving and leaving together, hugging each other as they walked, travelling home on the tube, were taken. Ms King was also followed the next day, with pictures secretly taken of her outside the Earls Court club. A young reporter was told to investigate and dig up what he could.

Although Saville has subsequently downplayed the significance of Whittingdale as a tabloid target, the MP was no ordinary backbencher. He had been Margaret Thatcher’s political secretary, and a special adviser to Norman Tebbit and Leon Brittan.

Between 2011 and 2014, the Department of Culture Media and Sport committee, which Whittingdale chaired, conducted an inquiry into the future of the BBC, conducted a lengthy and high-profile investigation into phone hacking at News International. The committee brought James and Rupert Murdoch to Westminster to answer MP’s questions at a hearing which led to global news coverage. 

The furore around the phone hacking scandal led to the year long Leveson Inquiry into the culture, practices and ethics of the press, which concluded in a report by Lord Justice Brian Leveson which recommended independent oversight of any new regulator which replaced the discredited Press Complaints Commission (PCC). A cross-party agreement, signed by David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband, endorsed both by a Royal charter-based system, and a set of incentives passed by parliament. 

However by October 2013 senior press figures had begun to resist any real change, stating they would not sign up and branded the proposed independent Charter oversight of self-regulation “state interference.” Although Whittingdale initially backed the charter and its costs-incentives, his position, at the time the People were probing his private life, was changing.

In the Commons that month, he warned the then culture secretary, Maria Miller, that it would be “infinitely preferable” to achieve a system of press regulation that delivered the “objectives” of Lord Justice Leveson’s report, but which also “commanded the support of as many newspapers as possible, rather than none of them”. 

Although phone hacking turned out to have been deep and widespread inside Mirror Group Newspapers, in October 2013, a year after civil claims were first launched, the company was still vehemently denying in public that there was any problem. It was only in September 2014 that MGN formally accepted liability for hacking and began paying any compensation to victims. 

Although Whittingdale initially backed the charter and its costs-incentives, his position, at the time the People were probing his private life, was changing   A Mirror Group newspaper exposing Whittingdale in 2013 therefore carried a risk that he could retaliate through his committee and start an Inquiry into MGN activity as they had done for News Group. That could have proved damaging, embarrasing and expensive for MGN executives.

The People, as part of their investigation, did gather potential reaction to their story. One senior Labour MP says that he was approached by the paper for his views on the allegations but was “not surprised” to see nothing was published.

Saville said MGN’s lawyers did look at the evolving story. But he didn’t know how high up inside the company the consequences of the Whittingdale investigation were discussed. He also said he didn’t know for sure if the story had been explored by other MGN titles. The outcome? 

No Mirror paper published anything.

At the top of MGN’s legal chain was Paul Vickers. In 2012 Vickers became head of the press industry group that produced proposals to sideline Leveson and lobbied MPs and government against the new charter. He later chaired the Regulatory Funding Company, the body that went on to fund and control the Independent Press Standards Organisation(IPSO). 

Those expecting that the People’s expose would mean big bucks for their information were left disappointed.

Round Two: the Sun and the BBC cuts

The pictures of Whittingdale and King were nevertheless hard currency in the tabloid village. Sprake, with Saville and his source’s permission, now had an agency, FameFlynet, which put the photographs on the market. He took them to Fleet Street’s biggest deal-maker, Max Clifford, the now-jailed former king of kiss n’ tell. Conference calls involving the Sun and the Mail on Sunday are alleged to have quickly been arranged.   Dominic Mohan. Credit: Stefan Rousseau / PA Archive

A potential deal with the Sun was explored. The pictures were shown to Dominic Mohan, then the Sun’s editor. No money is said to have changed hands. And nothing was published.

Two - possibly three, if the People was not the first - UK national newspapers now had the Whittingdale story and access to the pictures, if they wanted them. It was suggested that £20,000 was the price tag. But still nothing was published.

In late 2013 Whittingdale was continuing his attacks on the BBC, warning the corporation that revelations about six-figure payoffs given the issue of a fresh inquiry “more urgency”.  He told the Financial Times his committee would be looking at every aspect of the BBC, its structure, the role of the BBC Trust, and how the corporation was funded . If the threats sounded familiar, that’s because they had been said before – often by James Murdoch. 

The implied promise that the BBC would have its authority and power cut back, was delivered soon after the Conservative victory at the general election. Cameron’s first meeting with his new culture secretary had one item on the agenda – the BBC.

A few MPs who know Whittingdale well, said he was at times relatively open about his relationship with Olivia King, but not open about what she did. He is said to have taken her to the river terrace of the Palace of Westminster to watch the 2014 New Year fireworks over the Thames.

Whittingdale had given Max Mosley a moral lecture in 2009 during a Commons hearing of his select committee. He told Mosley: “You are a public figure and you know the British press. You know the appetite of the British press for stories of this kind. Had you not always felt this was a time bomb that sooner or later was going to go off?” 

This was insight and advice he seemed incapable of using when it came to his own life.

Round Three: The Mail on Sunday - 'No holds barred'

New information given to the Mail on Sunday in February 2014 prompted an editorial rethink about how important the Whittingdale story was. A small team of reporters, including some specialist correspondents, was put together by the paper's editor, Geordie Greig

According to Mail on Sunday staff, Greig made a moving speech to the gathered team, saying this was the type of political story that defined great newspapers, and if the MoS backed off, it had no right to call itself a newspaper. 

Reporters were sent to the village in Essex where Ms King lives. Neighbours were spoken to, the ‘Dungeon’ club in Earls Court was visited, other addresses she used were checked. 

The Mail on Sunday operation was described by one journalist as “serious – no holds barred.”

Another journalist involved said Whittingdale (or his close advisers) were told about the likelihood of publication and that Downing St had also been contacted. No formal response was received.

Greig made a moving speech [and said] if the Mail on Sunday backed off, it had no right to call itself a newspaper.

Months later, a friend of Ms King said Whittingdale had offered his partner an assurance that nothing would be published and all she had to do was essentially “sit tight” and do one important thing. He advised that she contact the press watchdog at the prime, the Press Complaints Commission (PCC), and demand that the Mail on Sunday disclose what they had ahead of publication.

The Mail on Sunday lawyers received a call that was, in the circumstances, unusual. The PCC, led at the time by Tory peer David Hunt, did not usually get involved in stories till after publication. It had no power to intervene before stories were published, and could only question news-gathering techniques. During the Leveson Inquiry the press made much of the need to ensure that no regulator could impose “prior restraint”. Sir Brian agreed. So this was a marked break with routine protocol. 

Close to the Saturday deadline, with the Whittingdale-King story scheduled as the front page, an all-out effort was made to by-pass this legal hurdle: they needed to find King and secure a comment. To Greig’s frustration she couldn’t be found, and the story was pulled with a promise that the operation would resume the following Tuesday – the first working day of the next week.

Greig simply told them the investigation was to stop. No further explanation was offered.   

When the small team of journalists returned to the Mail’s Kensington headquarters on the Tuesday they expected to redouble their efforts to track down King. Instead Greig simply told them the investigation was to stop. No further explanation was offered.

Northcliffe House - the Kensington office block shared by the Mail and the Independent. Credit: John Stillwell / PA Archive

Over the next few days, some Mail on Sunday journalists claimed Greig had been told to back off by Asssociated Newspapers' editor-in-chief, Paul Dacre. Others said Dacre didn’t need to lay down the law, that what he wanted was embedded in the DNA of the Mail Group. Another said Greig was simply told to drop the Whittingdale investigation by an executive higher up the Associated Newspapers chain.

Two years on, nothing critical has been published on Whittingdale’s private life in any Mail title. When The Independent’s editor, Amol Rajan, made a similarly abrupt halt to his paper’s own Whittingdale investigation, he too offered no explanation. It was left to a senior editor at The Independent to say : “We’ve got no choice. We can’t take an asset away from the Mail.”

Round Four: The Independent and the new Cabinet minister

Throughout 2014 Whittingdale continued to attack the BBC, branding the licence fee “worse than the poll tax.” He called the fee “unsustainable” and claimed it hit the poor hardest

Whittingdale also appeared to know more.... than IPSO’s chairman, Sir Alan Moses  

By September 2014 Whittingdale was treating the industry-backed regulator, IPSO, with a high degree of respect. He called one difficult story a “test” of IPSO’s credibility, saying "we need to give IPSO a chance."

By February 2015 the BBC was back in the cross-hairs. A DCMS report questioned the size and remit of the corporation, suggesting it should be cut and asked: “What is it [the BBC] there to do?” It objected to the idea of BBC One +1 channel because iPlayer was already a catch-up service. 

Three months before the election, Whittingdale also appeared to know more about the inner-workings of press regulatory bodies than IPSO’s chairman, Sir Alan Moses. He told one committee hearing that he knew Paul Vickers was standing down as chair of IPSO’s industry-funding body weeks before it was formally announced. Sir Alan responded to Mr Whittingdale’s insight saying “You have news that I do not.” 

One Senior Independent editor said “Whittingdale is the Mail’s asset – we can’t take that away from them."

By the time The Independent began investigating the reasons why the Whittingdale-King story had never been published, despite being known to at least three national newspaper groups, the relationship had ended and Whittingdale was now inside the cabinet.

Key elements of the story however required confirmation. Did Whittingdale take Olivia King to Amsterdam and accept the hospitality of MTV? Matt Baker at Viacom International Media Networks [the parent company], confirmed in an email that return flights and hotel accommodation had indeed been paid by MTV and that Olivia King had travelled with the then chair of the DCMS select committee.

Whittingdale did not declare the trip in the Register of Members Interests. Under the Commons rules for MPs, if the trip’s costs were less than one percent of a current parliamentary salary (£66,300) he didn’t need to. Flights for two from London to Amsterdam, and an overnight in a swish hotel might indeed come under the £600 mark. But the basic rule, especially for members – let alone the chair - of a high profile select committee, is set out clearly. It states: “If in doubt, declare it.”  

Asked to explain why he didn’t disclose anything about the MTV-Amsterdam visit with Olivia King, Whittingdale has remained silent.

There was also a clear public interest in investigating a politician who was a member of the Cornerstone Group, a group of traditional conservatives with the motto “Faith, Flag and Family” . That doesn’t sit easily with an MP who enjoyed a relationship with a dominatrix allegedly selling sado-masochistic services. Whittingdale’s record in the Commons on issues relating to Britain’s sex laws, including age of consent, sexual offences or prostitution, also saw him regularly voting against any greater liberalisation, this despite the secrets of his own personal life. 

By deciding against joining IPSO, along with the Guardian and the Financial Times, The Independent had no obvious reason to help sustain Whittingdale as Culture Secretary.

Just as it did over phone hacking at News International and the Mirror Group, The Independent had always reported accurately any misuse of authority, including the subservience of the Chancellor, George Osborne, who met Rupert Murdoch in Downing Street before the BBC was told it faced severe budget cut-backs.

But as the investigation advanced nearer to publication, with the paper’s lawyers backing the investigation’s focus on a wider political and commercial cover-up rather than just the detail of Mr Whittingdale’s personal liaisons with a prostitute, it became clear the editor, Amol Rajan, had a problem. 

The Independent newspaper, before it was shut down, was housed in the Mail’s Derry St building. It was a tenant of Associated Newspapers, relying on their IT services, canteen, security, building services, and other functions. The online version of the paper is still run from there. 

In one meeting which discussed the investigation’s progress, it was suggested we might write the story without naming the Mail on Sunday, or that perhaps the Guardian or the New York Times could be given the story, and a deal arranged to ensure they went easy on the The Independent backing off. One senior editor suggested that wasn’t an effective solution because “The Mail know we are doing this and they’ll know we leaked it.”

There was no suggestion that the story itself was something the paper had moral difficulties with, or was a subject matter The Independent shouldn't be wasting time on. The plan to offload it to the Guardian or the New York Times suggested taste wasn't an issue and that several public interest factors  namely Whittingdale’s contradictory moral stance, his voting record in the Commons, the Mosley lecture, and questions over his expenses  all justified publication.

Amol Rajan had a problem... The Independent was a tenant of Associated Newspapers

To complete a required legal element of the story before publication, it was important Olivia King be given the opportunity to respond. On October 19 last year “Mistress Kate” was scheduled to work at the London Retreat. Permission was sought from the editor to go the club and speak to her. The same day Amol Rajan was speaking at a Society of Editors conference. John Whittingdale was speaking at the same event just before him. 

The following day Rajan sent this email:

The “explanation” promised in the email never materialised. Executives above Rajan, at board level in IPL (Independent Publishing), knew about the decision to end the investigation. Those outside the company who asked what had prevented the story appearing, were told there had simply been a failure to stand it up - which wasn't true.

Over the next five months, till The Independent finally stopped printing, no explanation was offered by Rajan despite repeated promises. One senior editor however said it was the “least he could do” to explain. He said “Whittingdale is the Mail’s asset – we can’t take that away from them. “ He said it was a “ludicrous situation” to be the Mail’s tenant, adding “But - that’s where we are.”

Feeling invincible: the Minister for Media

Paul Dacre. Credit: Ben Birchall / PA Archive

So three newspaper groups, Mirror Group, Rupert Murdoch’s News UK, and the Mail all had vested interests in keeping Whittingdale in place as the UK’s culture and media secretary. The Independent’s editor and proprietor had their own reasons. They were prepared to bury the Whittingdale story because they supposedly feared the wrath of a displeased landlord, or feared being ostracised by a larger conservative establishment. Between them all they managed to leave John Whittingdale, according to one of his Westminster colleagues, “feeling he must be invincible.”

The power Whittingdale believes he is entitled to use, greater than any of his predecessors, is reaching elevated proportions

By stalling indeterminately a critical element of the law passed by parliament in 2013, related to the imposition of costs penalties on newspapers who fail to join a charter-approved regulator, Whittingdale effectively gave himself an unfettered executive power over the press. This was something that all sides at Leveson said should never happen. Although victims have complained of betrayal and broken promises made by David Cameron, Number 10 is currently staying silent and allowing Whittingdale free rein. 

The power the Culture minister believes he is entitled to use, greater than any of his predecessors, is reaching elevated proportions. Whittingdale recently suggested he should appoint the members of the BBC Trust, rendering the corporation an effective “government-approved” broadcaster - a situation which would destroy its independence and erode public trust in one of the world’s most respected institutions. A legitimate question to ask is therefore: who exactly would benefit from a BBC whose powers and reach have been severely attenuated?

He appears to have unilaterally decided to shelve the promised Part II of Leveson.  His reasons? None have been forthcoming, 

A legitimate question to ask is therefore: who exactly would benefit from a BBC whose powers and reach have been severely attenuated?   

During a recent meeting with victims of press abuses, Whittingdale was quizzed on why he wanted to retain a unique executive power that allowed him alone to decide whether or not he would commence a provision on costs that parliament had passed into law 3 years ago. 

His answers mentioned everything from the Convention on Human Rights, to the right to freedom of expression. He said he cared “very deeply” about the freedom of the press and was concerned about the impact of imposed “sanctions” and “penalties” on the newspaper industry.

He said his decision not to bring into effect a law voted through by parliament, which both he and the Prime Minister had previously acknowledged was an important incentive, didn’t mean he wasn’t ready to do so. He said the uncertainty kept the press “on their toes.”

When Whittingdale spoke to the Society of Editors last October he announced he had no immediate plans to sign into law any new financial penalties. He said he had listened to their concerns and would continue to review the matter. 

The gathered editors and newspaper executives didn’t sound as though they were being kept on their toes. They burst into spontaneous applause.


Read Mary Fitzgerald, openDemocracy's Editor-in-Chief, on the story here.

Read James Cusick's comment here.

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About the author

James Cusick was, until recently, the political correspondent of The Independent and The Independent on Sunday. As an experienced member of the lobby, he has previously worked at The Sunday Times and the BBC. 


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