April 13, 2016 Last Updated 8:12 am

UK newspapers accused of not publishing salacious story on minister out of self-interest

Story regarding culture minister gets spiked, but some wonder whether the motivation behind the rare example of press restraint was motivated by editorial judgement, or a desire to hold the story in reserve for another day

When was the last time one heard of a UK newspaper NOT publishing a story involving sex and politics? But that is what a group of newspapers are being accused of, liking because the public official in the story is involved in the regulation of the press in the UK.

Three papers, according to a story in the now digital-only Independent, had the story – The People, The Mail on Sunday and The Sun. The Independent, meanwhile, knew the three other papers had the story and was itself investigating why those papers were not going to report the story – though obviously they were in a position to report it.

JW-400That story was that British minister of culture, John Whittingdale, had a relationship with someone who is, as the press is politely putting it, working in the sex industry. The Daily Mail calls the other half of the Match.com hook up a “dominatrix”.

Whittingdale has admitted to the relationship and now the prime minister is being called on to remove the minister from his role in regulating the press. In response, the PM’s spokesman said that “The Prime Minister has full confidence in John Whittingdale and all his duties as Culture Secretary.”

Whittingdale made a statement regarding the incident:

Between August 2013 and February 2014, I had a relationship with someone who I first met through Match.com. She was a similar age and lived close to me.

At no time did she give me any indication of her real occupation and I only discovered this when I was made aware that someone was trying to sell a story about me to tabloid newspapers. As soon as I discovered, I ended the relationship.

This is an old story which was a bit embarrassing at the time. The events occurred long before I took up my present position and it has never had any influence on the decisions I have made as Culture Secretary.

Was the press holding something that could, in the future, be used to influence the minister? One member of the opposition thinks thinks so.

“It seems the press were quite deliberately holding a sword of Damocles over John Whittingdale,” Labour shadow cabinet minister Chris Bryant told the BBC.

“He has a perfect right to a private life but as soon as he knew this he should have withdrawn from all regulation of the press.”

Explaining why the Independent did not go with the story, editor Amol Rajan said that they rejected the story on editorial grounds. “As I said in my email to one of the sources who was demanding we publish this tale – an email I was fully aware would later be made public – I rejected this story on editorial grounds.”

The Guardian’s media commentator Roy Greenslade is quite sure that both the minister and the press are blameless in the affair:

Whittingdale’s statement about the affair was unequivocal. He met the woman on an online dating site, enjoyed a six-month relationship with her and did not know she was a sex worker.

Once that was brought to his attention, by a reporter, he ended the relationship. If he is telling truth, and there is little reason to doubt him, there was no reasonable public interest justification for publishing.

Indeed, one of the newspapers said to have had the information, the Sunday People, took counsel from a prominent Hacked Off supporter, who told them that to publish would amount to an invasion of privacy.

Bob Satchwell of the Society of Editors appears to agree. “The idea that the newspapers and broadcasters could all get together and say ‘we are not running the story’ is just silly,” Satchwell told The Daily Mail. “This story seems to be more about the dangers of using dating websites.”

But at least one person disagrees, and went on a bit of a Twitter rant:

For now, at least, Whittingdale remains in his post as Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, and is not likely to be using Match.com in the future.

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