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19 April 2016

Simon Danczuk MP: My run-in with The Sun, and what it reveals about John Whittingdale and press regulation

The Rochdale MP recalls being at the eye of a media storm, and calls on the Culture Secretary – also in the news for his association with a dominatrix – for press reforms.

By Simon Danczuk

It is the conversation that every MP dreads. The courtesy call from a tabloid editor letting you know they are running a story that could ruin your political career.

So it was that The Sun’s Tony Gallagher phoned to tell me that, though I had been a “good friend to the paper”, embarrassing details of my private life would be featuring prominently in the next day’s edition.

Anyone reading pages 1, 4 and 5 of The Sun on New Year’s Eve last year might reasonably ask – if this is how they treat their friends, what would they say about their enemies?

For my part, I expected no pity and received none. I am an outspoken backbencher, I do not shy away from controversial subjects, and I have led campaigns that have made many in the establishment very uncomfortable. This kind of attention is the price you pay for being in the public eye.

So I was more surprised than most to learn that four separate UK newspapers had passed up the chance to print a story about the Culture Secretary John Whittingdale’s private life – a story that, on the surface, had all the hallmarks of a classic tabloid tale.

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When compared with similar stories that have been splashed enthusiastically across the front pages, the claim that there was “no public interest” in the story rang hollow.

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As someone who has seen first-hand how unsympathetic the press can be, I find it hard to believe that four separate newspapers experienced a lengthy bout of selective discretion.

Once the BBC’s Newsnight went public with the story, the Mail on Sunday switched from believing there was no public interest in the affair to running five pages on Whittingdale’s personal life in excruciating detail.

To my mind, there can be no doubt that powerful newspaper proprietors were more concerned with protecting the position of a Culture Secretary who is on their side as a high-profile opponent of tighter press regulation.

The result is that, more than three years after the final report from the Leveson Inquiry was published, we are still waiting for meaningful reform.

As an avid reader of the tabloids, the last thing I want to see is an overly regulated media where journalists are no longer free to do what they do best. There’s no denying that The Sun’s story took its toll on me personally, but it is right that MPs are subject to a higher level of scrutiny, and I would not want to see that change.

Like anyone in the House of Commons, I have a thick skin and a sound knowledge of how the media works, but what about those who are less familiar with the workings of the Fourth Estate?

Did each of the UK’s 3m Muslims get a call ahead of The Sun’s now infamous “1 in 5 Brit Muslims” headline? Did my constituents get prior warning before Rochdale was branded a “sex grooming town” in a Times online article?

What courtesies were extended to Louise James, whose private grief after the death of five of her relatives in a tragic car accident was made very public by a reporter’s despicable deception? Or the countless others who have routinely been harassed and harangued in the pursuit of front page exclusives?

These examples are the strongest arguments there are in favour of stricter press regulation. It is not about celebrities or politicians; it is about protecting the public from the worst excesses of the press.

This has been the most frustrating aspect of the whole Whittingdale affair; powerful and influential people have made this an issue about the Culture Secretary to distract attention from the need for media regulation.

The fallout from the phone hacking scandal and the witness evidence at the Leveson Inquiry received blanket media coverage – the British press has a tendency to find itself endlessly fascinating.

But the public was largely indifferent. To put it bluntly, the man in the street does not have much sympathy for the celebrity names behind the Hacked Off campaign.

It was only when news broke that reporters had hacked into the voicemail of murdered teenager Milly Dowler that the public really began to take notice and demand change.

Leveson was not meant to save the blushes of cabinet ministers like John Whittingdale, but since he became Secretary of State he has repeatedly blocked a level of press regulation that has cross-party support and the backing of the public.

Victims of press intrusion are still waiting for the exemplary financial damages, as set out in the Crime and Courts Act 2013, to be imposed by the government against newspapers that do not comply with proper regulation.

There are also concerns that the long awaited Part Two of the Leveson Inquiry, looking into political and police corruption, might never take place.

Let me be clear, John Whittingdale is a single man who has done nothing illegal or immoral. But, in failing to push through press reforms, I believe he is guilty of being blatantly undemocratic.

Earlier this year, when I met with Sir Alan Moses, chairman of the Independent Press Standards Organisation (Ipso), he was refreshingly honest when he admitted that the body was not doing anywhere near enough to address a worrying increase in Islamophobic coverage in some sections of the British media. Ipso will only look into complaints from individuals who feel they have been harassed or victimised by the press. But entire communities have no redress when they have been discriminated against.

This “regulator” has also been rightly criticised for failing to ensure corrections and clarifications are given the same prominence as the original stories.

These are just some of the failings that a tougher and properly resourced regulator could seek to correct.

At their best, our newspapers embody a key part of our national identity. But press coverage that destroys families and threatens the very fabric of our communities has no place in British life. We need proper regulation to stop that from happening.

If we can make sure of that then the tabloids can write what they like about me – as long as they call first.