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Why the Whittingdale Storm Makes No Sense

15/04/2016 17:21

Once upon a time, a long, long time ago, I was the news editor of a national newspaper. Every day, I took decisions about which stories we should be covering, and which ones we wouldn't bother with.

Some stories were important but boring; others were of no lasting significance but quite interesting. Most of the decisions I made were based on instinct, experience, and the views of my colleagues.

So suppose, back in November 2013, I had been approached with a story about a little-known, divorced Tory backbencher who was apparently having a fling with a woman who was a sex worker. 'Let's see what we can get,' I might have said. 'And then we'll decide whether or not to run with it.'

It was just a year or so after publication of the Leveson report, when the press had taken a hell of a mauling over phone hacking, and the air was full of plans to put in place a new, more intrusive system of press regulation. The MP with the girlfriend was chairman of the culture, media and sport select committee- he was single, not particularly well known, and there didn't seem to be any over-riding imperative to publish. Better safe than sorry, I might have said; why pay £20,000 to attract more in-coming fire for no very good reason?

Fast forward to May 2015. The MP is now, to everyone's surprise, including his own, the minister in charge of press regulation. He also broke off his relationship with the woman in question more than a year ago, after he had been tipped off about how she earned her living. Should we revive the story? Again, I don't think I would have seen any good reason to: water under the bridge, no damage done, no real public interest defence.

And that, more or less, seems to have been the thinking of the editors of the Sunday People, the Mail on Sunday, The Sun and The Independent, all of whom are reported to have known about the story, and all of whom decided, at various times, not to publish it.

Pro-privacy campaigners are crying cover-up: they say the papers must have been blackmailing Mr Whittingdale, in effect saying to him: 'You'd better go easy on all that regulation stuff, or you know what will happen.' The Labour MP Chris Bryant, no friend of the tabloids, accused the press of holding a sword of Damocles over the secretary of state's head. None of which, I'm afraid, seems to me to make any sense at all.

The fact is that the people who are making most noise over all this are the same people who are livid with Mr Whittingdale for not pushing through a Leveson proposal that would require publishers to pay both sides' costs in a privacy or libel case, even if they won, unless they have signed up to the official press regulator. (Because that regulator would be backed by legislation and underpinned by a Royal Charter, most papers say it comes too close to State regulation and have refused to sign up.)

So we've entered Alice in Wonderland territory. The people who blame the press for gratuitous intrusion into people's private lives are jumping up and down with fury because the press, on this occasion, decided not to gratuitously intrude into someone's private life. Why did the papers hold back on Whittingdale, they ask, while they are fighting in court against an injunction that prevents them from naming a celebrity who was allegedly involved in what the tabloids quaintly used to call a 'three-in-a-bed romp'?

Well, for one thing, perhaps the celebrity is a tad better known than Mr Whittingdale. And for another, surely the campaigners should be championing the celebrity's right to a private life, rather than seeking to deny the same right to Mr Whittingdale.

Did Mr Whittingdale go easy on press regulation because he was terrified that his taste in girlfriends might be revealed in all its glory to a waiting world? The evidence suggests not; he has always been a pro-Murdoch free marketeer, and there's no reason to suppose that his instincts would ever have been to insert even the slightest suggestion of government involvement into the regulation of a 'free' press.

As for the suggestion that he should now be made to step aside from his responsibilities for media regulation, why? The story is out now, so even if he had been worried about being embarrassed in the past, he doesn't have to worry any more. I'm not exactly one of his greatest fans, and I greatly fear the damage he might inflict on the BBC - but I don't think his dating arrangements are a reason to kick him sideways.

Final question: should he have told the PM about this modest skeleton in his cupboard when he was given the keys to his ministerial office? I think he probably should have, as it happens, but on my own personal scale of current political stories, ranging from the EU referendum to tax avoidance to the unravelling of the Osborne budget, it comes pretty low down the news list.

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