John Whittingdale: Press hits out at 'conspiracy theorists'
Hacked Off campaigners accused of arguing themselves 'into the gutter' over sex worker story
Britain's press has rounded on campaign group Hacked Off after it suggested newspapers covered up Culture Secretary John Whittingdale's relationship with a woman who turned out to be a sex worker.
The titles that investigated the relationship as long ago as 2013 said they had not run with the story because it was not in the public interest.
But Hacked Off, which campaigns for a free and accountable press, said it was "surely naive" to think they withheld the story because of "ethical scruples never otherwise on show".
In a statement, the group said: "Given what we now know, the public is inevitably left with the suspicion that, despite his denials, Mr Whittingdale's actions could have been influenced by his knowledge that the press was aware of these private matters and might publish. That suspicion is fatal to trust in his ability to act in the public interest."
Labour has also suggested that the MP should no longer be in charge of press regulation because he had been "vulnerable" to pressure from the media.
However, Whittingdale says the events occurred "long before" he took up his present position as culture secretary and "never had any influence" on the decisions he has made in his current role.
In the leader column for The Times, David Aaronovitch accuses Hacked Off of doing "exactly the thing that, without evidence, they accuse the press of doing - seeking to strong-arm a decision out of government through deployment of innuendo and personal embarrassment".
He concludes: "In wrongly deploying against a political foe his entirely private activities, the high-minded have argued themselves into the gutter."
The problem with the "conspiracy theories", says The Guardian, is that there is not yet any solid proof to substantiate them.
"Mr Whittingdale can perhaps be faulted for not telling the prime minister what was going on," it says. "But he should not be dragged into the spotlight simply for having a private life or even for making a mess of it, let alone for being a Tory."
In the Daily Telegraph, Tom Harris says Hacked Off's "tinfoil hatters need to beam down back to Earth", comparing the conspiracy theorists to those who believe US President Barack Obama's birth certificate is fraudulent.
Laura Kuenssberg, the political editor at the BBC, asks: "How have we found ourselves in this strange situation where privacy campaigners who have pushed for tighter rules are up in arms because the private life of a single cabinet minister was not reported?"
There is no sense right now that Whittingdale will step aside from the press regulation part of his job, "but this is certainly the kind of headache that the government could do without", she says, "and it's the kind of story, involving politicians, the papers, and sex, that could well take an unpredictable turn".
Calls to curb John Whittingdale's powers over sex worker admission
Culture Secretary John Whittingdale is under pressure to withdraw from press regulation decisions after he admitted to having a relationship with a sex worker.
The MP told BBC's Newsnight that he first met the woman through Match.com and had no idea about her real occupation until he was told someone was trying to sell the story to tabloid newspapers.
"As soon as I discovered, I ended the relationship," he said. "This is an old story which was a bit embarrassing at the time."
Whittingdale said the relationship, which occurred between August 2013 and February 2014, when he was chairman of the Commons culture, media and sport select committee, has never influenced any of the decisions he has made as Culture Secretary, a post to which he was appointed in 2015.
Downing Street has also come out in his defence, describing the politician as a "single man entitled to a private life" and insisting he has the full confidence of Prime Minister David Cameron.
However, Labour has called for Whittingdale to withdraw from press regulation decisions because the story had left him "vulnerable" to pressure from the media.
According to Newsnight, four newspapers – the Sunday People, the Mail on Sunday, The Sun and The Independent – knew about the relationship but did not publish the story as it was not in the public interest.
The issue is not about the relationship itself, but about Whittingdale's role in regulating the press when the newspapers had a story about his private life, says BBC political editor Laura Kuenssberg.
Brian Cathcart, a spokesman for the pressure group Hacked Off, said: "The public can't have faith in his judgment and his independence in making decisions about the media anymore."
It was "absurd" that the newspapers would be "too scrupulous" to tell such a story about a cabinet minister, he added, although Roy Greenslade, The Guardian's media commentator, said it was "a bit much to castigate newspapers for doing the right thing for once".