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13 April 2016

A sex scandal won’t bring down John Whittingdale – and quite rightly

The Whittingdale story essentially boils down to “man has relationship with woman”. So why does it matter whether the press covered it up?

By Stephen Bush

Sex sells, but it rarely ends political careers. In fact, since the war, a sex scandal has never been enough to bring down a Cabinet minister. Jack Profumo’s problem wasn’t that he was having an affair with Christine Keeler – it was that she was also the mistress of Yevgeny Ivanov, naval attaché (read: spy) at the Russian Embassy. Cecil Parkinson was brought down – and even then, only briefly – not because he was having an affair but because he was economical with the truth about his mistress, Sara Keays, who was pregnant with his child.

So John Whittingdale, whose relationship – now a thing of the past – with a sex worker, Olivia King, was first broken by Byline and has been thrust into the limelight by Newsnight, has little reason to fear for his job security. Even more so, because he has done nothing more wrong than find a relationship on, while serving as chair of the Commons select committee for culture, media and support, the job he held prior to being appointed Secretary of State for the same brief following the Conservatives’ election victory.

Brian Cathcart of Hacked Off, a lobby group who want the recommendations of the Leveson Inquiry to be implemented in full, has leapt on the story, particularly on the fact that James Cusick, formerly of the Independent, says that the story was spiked by the editors of the Indie and the Mail on Sunday, as Whittingdale was regarded as an “asset” for the papers in question. The BBC meanwhile, is focusing on the fact that four papers turned down the story, while Labour’s Chris Bryant, a longtime campaigner for greater press regulation, is suggesting the story may have been used as a “Sword of Damocles” over Whittingdale, in case he should opt for greater regulation of the press.

Who’s right? Well, no-one really. The change in policy by the government towards Leveson has very little to do with Whittingdale’s dating life, but the eradication of its Liberal Democrat component.  That Whittingdale was held to have done a good job running his select committee contributed to David Cameron’s decision to appoint him, but the bigger factor was that, on the culture brief, they are “closely attuned” in the words of one source familiar with both their thinking.

But it’s equally true to say that Whittingdale’s appointment was cheered by most anti-Levesonites, with Mike Harris, chief executive of 89up, a freedom-of-speech group, describing him as of the few “friends of free speech” around the Cabinet table.

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And yes, while the Whittingdale story boils down to nothing more than “man has relationship with woman”, to be frank, if the Mail were to spike stories on those grounds, its website would be rather empty . And imagine for a second that Whittingdale were not a Cabinet minister but a member of the BBC Trust, or even just a producer somewhere within the Corporation. It’s hard to sustain the argument that the Corporation’s many enemies in the press wouldn’t have run that particular non-story.

So while it’s entirely possible that those parts of the press didn’t run this particular story not because of a sudden outburst of libertarianism about sex, but because Whittingdale’s opinions were in tune with their own, it is equally the case that the likes of Hacked Off, too, are acting not out of journalistic scruple, but proprietary interest.