A former tabloid editor has accused the BBC of a "conspiracy" against newspapers in an explosive live interview with Nick Robinson on the Today programme.
Neil Wallis, who was the deputy editor of the News of the World and edited The People, kicked off a heated debate with Robinson over the lack of newspaper coverage of Culture Secretary John Whittingdale having a relationship with a sex worker.
Four national newspapers had details of the story but decided not to cover it, saying it was not in the public interest. But the BBC last night reported the concerns of campaigners who say there could have been a cover-up involved, after the story was covered on a website.
Whittingdale, 56, who is now in charge of press regulation, was not a minister at the time of the relationship, and was not aware the woman was a sex worker.
Wallis accused the BBC of "campaigning against" newspapers for invading privacy, but then hypocritically attacking them for failing to cover the details of Whittingdale's sex life, in an "Alice Through The Looking Glass" scenario.
Wallis said the BBC was “getting its own back” on Whittingdale by reporting the unwillingness to publish the story, saying that there was no reason to cover it because "on the bottom line, what we have here is single man dated single woman before he was a minister".
The group Hacked Off, which calls for greater press regulation, has said the story damages the Culture Secretary's credibility and that newspapers should have reported the information they had and that if Whittingdale's ministerial decisions around the media could have been affected if knew about the investigation.
Wallis told Robinson: "This is Alice through the looking glass isn’t it? This is truly fantastic this is, you’ve got the BBC joining hands with Hacked Off. For years you’ve been trying, campaigning against newspapers quote ‘breaching privacy’.
"Now, you have Hacked Off, some nut-job conspiracy theory website, and the BBC, all joining together to attack the press not revealing that a single man, who was not a minister at the time, had a relationship with a woman he didn’t know was a dominatrix.”
Robinson, who expertly kept his cool under heavy incoming fire from Walis, said at one point: "Do you wanna just answer the question? Answer the question?"
"You’re a tabloid editor," Robinson said, "Someone comes to you with this story, are you really seriously saying to me that you would have said there is a senior politician who is now a minister, we have evidence he’s been in a relationship with a dominatrix, you would have said oh no no, no, no there’s no public interest in printing that?"
After a pause Wallis replied: “This is the BBC getting its own back against ..”
Robinson cut in saying: “Answer me and then attack the BBC, you’ve got plenty of time to do that too.”
Wallis argued that the BBC and Hacked Off should be celebrating the newspapers' decision because it meant that the press regulation set up after the phone hacking scandal and Leveson Inquiry is "working".
He pointed out the one of the papers that decided not to cover the story was the Independent: "Are we now suggesting that the Left-wing Independent, who along with the Guardian and the BBC have joined with Hacked Off agains that media over privacy issues, that the independent is now part of some huge conspiracy. The truth of the matter is, in the world we are now living in, what you are seeing, in fact, is that press regulation is working.
"In years gone by, yes this story would have been published, that’s right. But the world has changed, we do not see stories like this being published any more.
“The Mail on Sunday has just been declared newspaper of the year. It runs heavy-hitting big stories, it’s not afraid of anybody, and this story was not run on two basis: the basis one is did this story rate the invasion of privacy that came with it and on the bottom line, what we have here is single man dated single woman before he was a minister. What you saw here, is [that] press regulation works.”
Media industry figures were quick to quash any idea of a press conspiracy in not publishing the story:
When Robinson pointed out the Daily Mirror ran the story on front page on Wednesday, Wallis hit back: “The Mirror today have run this story for one simple reason, the fact that the BBC is leading its news on this invasion of privacy into this guy, you know?
"You are absolutely proving this is Alice Though the Looking glass. You and Hacked Off campaigning for further invasions of privacy.”
Robinson closed the interview by saying: “You’ve made that point many, many times and I’ve resisted being a spokesman for the BBC because I ask questions, I don’t take part in conspiracies, or indeed, speak for the BBC.”
He added that the story had been covered by the BBC and others – after first appearing in Private Eye – because it was “interesting… as indeed, it has proved to be.”