As the Fourth Estate maintains its silence on yesterday’s Byline Media exposé on the saga of Culture Secretary John Whittingdale’s more than year-long relationship with a known prostitute, and the unwillingness of the papers to say anything about it, a number of “Fleet Street insiders” have given feedback to Dominic Ponsford at Press Gazette as to why they did not deem this to be worthy of publication.
He is not married. Nor are all those boy band members whose relationships are splashed all over the papers and their websites on a constant basis (pace Mail Online).
He does not appear to have broken the law. Nor have all those splashed over Mail Online, and for that matter, nor has the “Married Sleb Parent” that the Sun is so desperate to unmask. Moreover, it was claimed that his partner was handing out business cards within the precincts of the Palace of Westminster. I’ll just leave that last one there.
He has not portrayed a false image. John Whittingdale is a member of the Cornerstone group of Conservative MPs. The group motto is “Faith, flag and family”, one of which is missing from that image (with a second arguably in doubt). Cornerstone is dedicated to “traditional values”, standing for “traditional marriage” and “family and community duties”. Any editor worth his stipend should be able to fashion a justification out of that lot.
He is not a figure who is high profile enough to ring many bells with readers. Let me pitch the name of David Mellor at this point. Mellor is moderately well known now, but at the time he had the same Government role Whittingdale now occupies, he was not. He was, however, charged with toughening up on press regulation (ring any bells?) in John Major’s 1992 administration, telling the papers they were “drinking in the last chance saloon”.
Mellor was carrying on an extra-marital affair with a young woman called Antonia de Sancha, and their, er, activities were actually bugged, the press team involved including one figure who, right now, cannot be named for legal reasons. He found himself splashed all over the front page of the Sun, and for several days on the trot.
David Mellor did not resign immediately, and so the press assault was intensified, veering across the honesty line in order to serve up claims that he wore a Chelsea shirt while enjoying sexual congress with Ms de Sancha (he was a fan of Chelsea FC). Mellor did not actually own a club shirt, but such was the desperation of the press to “get” him that this was of little consequence: they made it up to keep up the barrage.
So much for not being high profile enough.
The relationship apparently finished in any case before he became a Cabinet Minister (he was chair of the Commons culture select committee at the time). Where to start? Gordon Brown wasn’t even in Parliament when at University, but that aspect of his life has been worked over by the press (ditto Tony Blair, Jack Straw, Nick Clegg and countless others). Moreover, it is the potential for the relationship to be used as leverage which has caused concern - if only by those outside the mainstream press.
Whichever way you slice it, those reasons for the press not to run the Whittingdale story may look good at first, but come across as especially lame when subjected to any kind of serious analysis.
The thought that the larger part of the Fourth Estate which is implacably opposed to properly independent press regulation is keeping Whittingdale where he is in order to allow them to carry on misbehaving as before - with sham regulator IPSO ready to wipe their collective backsides as and when required - is still the more persuasive one.
There are not many in the press who I respect highly; Dominic Ponsford is one of them. But on this occasion he has been sold a pup.