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26 April 2016

John Whittingdale’s women, how Seumas Milne got his big break and maddening machines

When the press finds a story about a politician’s sex life, the usual practice is to strain every sinew to establish a public-interest justification to publish. . .

By Peter Wilby

When the newspapers find a salacious story about a politician’s sex life, their usual practice is to strain every sinew to establish a public-interest justification to publish. If the politician (usually male) is married, he has deceived his spouse and is therefore likely to deceive the voters. Otherwise, there are time-honoured alternatives: the risk of blackmail, threats to national security, the danger that excessively energetic sex will make the man too tired to perform ministerial duties. The mere mention of “dominatrix”, for example, is usually enough to set the men in green eyeshades shouting, “Hold the front page!” Norman Lamont, chancellor in the early 1990s, was all over the papers just because he’d rented a basement flat to a Miss Whiplash in Notting Hill.

Now consider the following sequence of events. John Whittingdale (divorced) had a relationship with a dominatrix. He escaped exposure for three years – during which he was chairman of the Commons culture, media and sport select committee, and then secretary of state – because four newspapers, after extensive investigations, found no public interest in the story. Meanwhile, Whittingdale was obligingly “not convinced” that (as suggested by the Leveson report) newspapers that failed to accept a recognised regulator should have to pay all legal costs if they were taken to court.


Press pass

Eventually, Private Eye and the BBC brought the story into the open. The Mail on Sunday, one of the newspapers that had failed for three years to establish a public interest, then found in a single week what it claimed to be evidence that he had texted pictures of cabinet ministers meeting at Chequers to another girlfriend, a former page three model, and shown her documents from his ministerial red box over breakfast. This conduct was “at best reckless, at worst a breach of his highest obligations”, the paper advised. Normal press service was thus resumed. It is not necessary to allege a conspiracy or any collusion between the four newspapers involved, or between them and Whittingdale. That is not how these things happen. Whittingdale knew that the papers knew of his private life. They knew that he knew. On Whittingdale’s watch – he became a minister in May 2015 – the press has got away with ignoring the regulatory system central to Leveson’s recommendations. Draw
your own conclusions.


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Beefy’s out

The Ins have the IMF, the OECD, the Bank of England, the Institute for Fiscal Studies, the CBI, the British Chambers of Commerce and President Obama on their side in the EU referendum. The Outs have the former England cricketer Ian Botham, whose view that Brussels is “a racket” made the splash in the Sunday Times. The Outs will welcome the support of someone who specialises in rescuing lost causes such as England’s 1981 Ashes campaign. And the Sunday Times no doubt will give due prominence to Angela Merkel’s views on team selection for England’s next Test match.


Blair for hire

Another week, another exposé of Tony Blair’s post-leadership activities. On this occasion, it’s the Times revealing a secret trust, set up to manage his vast wealth. Two of his former advisers, the paper claims, told undercover reporters that they had ­approached Dave Hartnett, the former head of Revenue and Customs, about how the trust should be structured.

In his final speech to the Labour party conference in 2006, Blair said: “In the years to come, wherever I am, whatever I do, I’m with you.” How Labour members must now wish he wasn’t.


Unexpected items

“Unknown item in the bagging area” has been succeeded at my local supermarket by the even more annoying “Surprising item in the bagging area”. I readily accept that some things can be “unknown” to a machine. Admitting as much shows a proper humility. I do not accept that a machine can be “surprised”, however, and I object to a tone that recalls teachers who, when I misbehaved at school, expressed themselves “surprised and disappointed”.

Machines are now being developed to drive cars. I am sure they can be programmed to avoid other vehicles, cyclists and pedestrians. But what if they encountered a mouse, a dead bird or a paper bag blowing in the wind? They would all come to a standstill chanting: “Surprising item on the road surface.”


Jobs for my boy

Can it really be true that, as I wrote last week, Jeremy Corbyn’s spin doctor Seumas Milne (Balliol College, Oxford), a lifelong socialist, got his first job with his father’s help in 1981? My source – who told me that the late Alasdair Milne (New College, Oxford) approached Andrew Knight (Balliol), then the Economist editor – was impeccable but, after 35 years, memories can be mistaken. Surely, it has been suggested to me, Milne would have been horrified by his father’s intervention. That may be true except that, judging by my own experience, Milne would have known nothing about it.

When I edited the NS, a prominent ­centre-left figure, whom I had never previously met, asked me for a “private” lunch. I thought he wanted to offer me a job – perhaps, as he was a Blairite and I wasn’t, to get me out of the way. Instead, he asked me to find his daughter a job, but insisted she must know nothing about his approach. I told him (truthfully) that the NS didn’t have any jobs, at least not paid ones.

Whatever the truth about Milne and his father, the person mainly responsible for hiring him – with or without Knight’s involvement – was Sarah Hogg (Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford), then a senior editor at the Economist, daughter of John Boyd-Carpenter (Balliol), a former Tory cabinet minister, and wife of Douglas Hogg (Christ Church, Oxford), a future Tory cabinet minister.

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This article appears in the 20 Apr 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Shakespeare 400 years Iater