As Jim Cusick has painstakingly proved in a 3000 word piece about press investigations into the private life of John Whittingdale, the culture secretary is now in no position to judge two crucial and controversial measures relating to the press.
Last month Whittingdale was explicitly asked: have the press anything on you which could influence your decision? He replied; “Of course not.”
Forget Whittingdale’s role in restructuring the BBC or Charter renewal for a moment, as a cabinet minister he is wholly responsible for:
a) Signing or commencing the costs provision of Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013 which will reward members of the Leveson compliant self regulator with a low cost arbitration service
b) The initiation of a promised Leveson Two Inquiry, which would look at all the criminal evidence of press, police and political interference now all the related trials are over.
(I happen to favour the first as a journalist because it would protect me from vexatious and expensive litigation. And the second because it could help expose the police, private eye and press corruption at the heart of the Daniel Morgan Murder.)
The Public Interest.
There have been many debates whether publishing Whittingdale’s relationship with a paid ‘fetish escort’ was in the public interest.
The Independent decided not to run the story the day after Whittingdale said he wouldn’t sign the Crime and Courts Act.
One thing is for sure – it was well below the normal privacy bar set by the Mail, the Sun and the Mirror who had the pictures. The fact Whittingdale subscribed to conservative ‘family values’ groups easily tipped it over the bar set by IPSO’s Editor’s Code. The fact he’d taken his dominatrix on an undeclared parliamentary freebie would have been over the bar for most the broadsheets too.
But the most important issue is the conflict of interest as a minister.
James Cusick has tracked how Whittingdale visibly changed his policy decisions in regard to the press every time his private life was about to be revealed. The Independent decided not to run the story (after five months of editorially approved investigation) the day after Whittingdale said he wouldn’t sign the Crime and Courts Act “at the moment.”
When Vince Cable was caught in 2010 by two reporters posing as constituents saying “I have declared war on Rupert Murdoch’ he had to recuse himself from his ministerial role judging Murdoch’s BSkyB bid.
Whittingdale has proved himself at least as compromised over press related issues.
At a meeting with Hacked Off victims of press intrusion last month, Whittingdale was explicitly asked: have the press anything on you which could influence your decision? He replied; “Of course not.”
We now know he had been approached at least once by press representatives with pictures of him and his dominatrix.
Whether the culture secretary was pressurised by the press to change his mind or not, the appearance of conflict of interest cannot be escaped. For the public to have any confidence in future ministerial decisions about the press, Whittingdale must therefore recuse himself immediately.