by David Ward
Three weeks ago Uncut wrote about the emerging story of John Whittingdale and press treatment of his relationship with a sex-worker. Since then the story has appeared in print and broadcast media with yet more revelations emerging this morning.
Much coverage, including David Aaronovitch’s Times column on Friday, has focussed on his right to a private life. As well as the dissonance of those such as Hacked Off appearing to oppose this. Aaronovitch dismisses Maria Eagle’s call for Whittingdale to recuse himself from press regulation over a mere “perception”.
This is understandable. Whittingdale appears to be a man guilty of little more than some embarrassing missteps. He has spent two years shadowing his brief and another ten years chairing the Select Committee that scrutinises his department. It is hard to think of another Conservative minister as qualified for his role, save perhaps Ed Vaizey.
But this misses the point. The lurid details and high handed rows about who should know what goes on in the minister’s boudoir are a distraction from the very serious question of the Ministerial code.
Section 7 of the Ministerial code is quite clear on minister’s private interests, in bold text at paragraph 7.1. “Ministers must ensure that no conflict arises, or could reasonably be perceived to arise, between their public duties and their private interests, financial or otherwise.”
The key point here is a conflict that “could reasonably be perceived to arise”. The Culture Secretary’s statement said he was told by newspapers they had the original dominatrix story before he was appointed Secretary of State, and that he ended the relationship at that point. It is clear then that from the moment he was appointed he was in breach of paragraph 7.1 of the Ministerial Code.
Significant parts of Leveson’s recommendations have yet to be implemented. Crucially including the requirement for newspapers to pay libel costs to complainants under section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act. If they do not offer a low cost resolution for such cases they would be required to pay costs even if they win. Unsurprisingly, newspapers are opposed to this.
Whittingdale has said that he is not minded at present to implement this measure, but that he reserves the right to do so in future. It is possible that Whittingdale has not changed his mind, as many have argued forcefully. But by signalling to the press and others his figure hovered over this ‘red button’ he compounded his conflict of interest and any perception of it. He ensured he was the sole arbiter of a key decision on press regulation, fully knowing that the media was sitting on an embarrassing story about him.
This is not to argue the Culture Secretary shouldn’t be allowed the privacy Leveson called for. Of course he should. The unfortunate irony is he could have easily ensured it was kept this private. Had he informed the Prime Minister of the risk of this conflict on his appointment and recused himself from press regulation, there would have been no public interest in running the story at all. In all likelihood we may never have known about it.
So Maria Eagle is right to call for him to pass on the authority for this decision. By his own actions Mr Whittingdale created at least the perception of a conflict of interest.
We should be under no illusions that policy will suddenly change if he did. After all, the most likely recipient of this brief would be the Sajid Javid, who as Culture Secretary made no efforts to implement these regulations either. The question is one of probity in public life.
If rumours are to be believed, there’s more to come on this story. Nobody wants to go back to the bad old days of the Major government with scandal hit ministers barricading themselves in their private offices in defiance. If the Ministerial Code is to mean anything, and it should, John Whittingdale must remove himself from this decision, or remove himself from the role.
David Ward is a Labour campaigner in south London