There Was No Press Conspiracy Over The John Whittingdale Expose

12/04/2016_Whittingdale
Britain's Culture Secretary John Whittingdale leaves 10 Downing Street in London, Britain April 12, 2016. Stories about Whittingdale's private life have raised questions about media ethics. Stefan Wermuth/Reuters

The story about British Culture Secretary John Whittingdale’s relationship with a woman who turned out to be a “dominatrix,” which reports say was known to several newspapers in 2013 and 2014 but was not published, is a classic case study of the balancing act between the right to privacy and the public interest in disclosure. In practice this is rarely a purely ethical or editorial decision. Inevitably, legal, political and taste issues will come into play. The circumstantial details are vital. Yes, you might say “publish and be damned” but in Britain, a country without a First Amendment, there has to be a justification.

In the highly competitive U.K. newspaper market editors hate to spike juicy tales of politicians and former sex workers. Yet, in the febrile debate over British journalism that has followed the Leveson inquiry into phone-hacking we find ourselves in the intriguing situation where advocates of restraint, such as the pro-regulation campaign Hacked Off, are urging publication of details of the private love life of an unmarried individual. Whittingdale told the BBC’s Newsnight on Tuesday that he did not know his ex-girlfriend was a former sex-worker. And if she was, so what?

There is a good reason to publish this story now. But the suspicion is that when some newspapers first knew about it they did not run with it because they feared pushing the Secretary of State responsible for media regulation into implementing Lord Justice Leveson's suggestions for statutory oversight of the U.K. press. In the last few days the story surfaced via an ex-prostitute on social media, the online news website Byline Media and satirical magazine Private Eye (a publication which was resolutely against Leveson's proposals). It then saw mainstream media daylight on Newsnight that managed to get a response from Whittingdale's office. So it's out now, but should it have been published back then?

You would have to be very naive to think that the editors who did not go with the story had not considered the political implications and the possible ramifications for their fight against tougher regulation. At the time there was a celebrity-led tide of public feeling sympathetic to stronger controls on the press in the wake of the phone-hacking scandal.

Yet there were good reasons not to publish. Like Hacked Off I am a strong defender of the right to privacy unless there is a substantial and directly relevant public interest in its invasion.  It is also said that the informant wanted paying for their story. Newspapers have the right to do that, but it does not look good when you are in front of a judge or regulator trying to justify publication.

At that period in the wake of the Leveson Inquiry newspapers told me of quite sensational stories that were not seeing the light of day because there was not a clear serious public interest involved. That “chilling effect” was strong then, and I would suggest, still has had a useful effect in restraining the press alongside the marginally tougher self-regulation system now in place through new standards body IPSO. Ironically, this story could be evidence that the newspapers are behaving better.

Ultimately, any suggestion that the newspapers suppressed the story purely to avoid more stringent press regulation just does not make much political sense. This is a man who has always been on the record as strongly, ideologically opposed to any statutory regulation of the press.  You might accuse the newspapers of a failure to take a risk, but a conspiracy of silence is not the easiest explanation.

Charlie Beckett is a journalist, LSE Media Professor and Director of the Polis think tank.