quinta-feira, 14 de abril de 2016
When a Tory sex scandal isn’t a sex scandal
When a Tory sex scandal isn’t a sex scandal
Cameron’s culture secretary was ‘hanging around with a prostitute,’ but the tabloids didn’t touch the story.
By TOM MCTAGUE AND ALEX SPENCE 4/13/16, 8:49 PM CET
LONDON — It’s the sort of story that would normally get the British tabloids worked up for days: a senior Conservative politician caught in a relationship with a sex worker.
But John Whittingdale appeared to have held on to his job with barely a peep from Fleet Street Wednesday, despite admitting that he had a six-month relationship with a sex worker he had met on Match.com. David Cameron defended his culture secretary and rejected calls from the opposition Labour party for him to be stripped of his responsibility for media policy.
A Downing Street spokesman said Whittingdale is “a single man who is entitled to a private life” and that the prime minister had “full confidence in him.”
‘The press definitely pulled its punches’ — Labour party source
It helped Whittingdale that the newspapers, in a rare display of collective restraint, largely dismissed the revelations as unworthy of their indignation.
Labour sources were aghast, arguing that Whittingdale had been spared because newspaper editors didn’t want to upset a man with power over policies that affect them, and who has been seen by some as a long-term political ally.
“The press definitely pulled its punches,” a senior party source said. “Look, this is a senior politician hanging around with a prostitute in the Houses of Parliament. Of course it’s a story.”
This was the classic Westminster sex scandal scandal turned on its head.
Whittingdale’s startling admission didn’t come in the way that politicians’ embarrassing secrets are normally revealed to the world: namely, in the pages of one of Fleet Street’s red tops. Several newspapers were aware of the relationship months ago, but decided not to run a story about it.
Instead of the usual muckrakers, it was a little-known, crowdfunded journalism website, Byline, that broke the story on Sunday night. Byline’s scoop was largely ignored by other media outlets until the BBC’s Newsnight program picked it up Tuesday, prompting the statement by Whittingdale.
The revelation reignited an old debate about journalists intruding into the private lives of public figures, but with the usual roles bizarrely reversed.
On one side, tabloid journalists talked the story down, insisting there was no public interest in raking over Whittingdale’s private conduct. On the other, critics who campaign for a more scrupulous, less intrusive press insisted Byline was right to run the story and accused the newspapers of a cover-up for holding back.
If it was anyone else, the critics argued, the newspapers wouldn’t hesitate to publish. They only took it easy on Whittingdale because he’s the minister for media policy, and protecting him was in their corporate interests.
Whittingdale was accused of a conflict of interest, since he would preside over media issues that would impact the publishers holding embarrassing information on file about him.
A prostitute waits for clients on a street in Nice
Sword of Damocles
Labour pushed that line Wednesday, insisting that Whittingdale, a veteran Thatcherite Tory who favors light-touch regulation and reforming the BBC — an issue on which he has common cause with many newspaper editors and owners — had been compromised.
Chris Bryant, the Shadow leader of the House of Commons, said the press had been “quite deliberately holding a sword of Damocles over John Whittingdale” by not publishing the story in an attempt to exert leverage over him.
Privately, Labour are convinced the press, who they consider to be overwhelmingly hostile to their leader Jeremy Corbyn, gave Whittingdale a free pass because he was considered an “ally” in their fight against stricter regulation of the newspaper industry after phone hacking.
However, there was an acceptance that some of the wilder conspiracy theories were wide of the mark. “The press could not have known at the time [the first newspapers investigated Whittingdale’s relationship] that he would go on to be culture secretary,” the same source told POLITICO. “No-one thought he would be culture secretary. And he finished the relationship with her before he was a minister.”
‘In the end it couldn’t get past the lawyers’ — Fleet Street source
The source added: “You’ve also got to accept the atmosphere [after phone hacking] was one of extreme caution. Newspapers were too scared to do prurient stories like this — just look at how boring a lot of them were.”
Publicly, journalists mocked Labour’s allegations of a cover up. Privately, reporters of some newspapers were unhappy the story had not been pursued.
“He was chair of the Culture, Media and Sport select committee — he was clearly involved in the debate about press regulation,” a senior Fleet Street source told POLITICO. “We did not want to turn him over if we didn’t have to. The fact that he was single and important pushed it back over the line, just. In the end it couldn’t get past the lawyers.”
There were suggestions Wednesday that Downing Street was angry with Whittingdale for failing to tell them about the relationship that had potential to cause controversy.
The prime minister’s spokesman hinted he would like to have been told earlier. Asked if Cameron thought he should have been made aware earlier, the spokesman said: “John Whittingdale’s view was that this was in the past, and had been dealt with.”
The spokesman also refused to say whether the prime minister thought it was right for the BBC to have run the story in the first place. “That’s a decision for the BBC and others to make,” the spokesman said.
Whittingdale was also facing questions about a trip with the former girlfriend to Amsterdam, paid for by a media company, that he did not declare on the Parliamentary register. The minister insisted that he did not break any rules because the value of the trip was less than the £600 threshold for disclosure.
Some MPs were skeptical. One MP told POLITICO: “I really don’t buy his story that the reason he didn’t declare the Amsterdam trip was that it only cost £540-odd quid. It’s because he didn’t want to.”
Tom McTague and Alex Spence