Why the Conservative MP’s return to the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport is a bad sign for decent journalism in this country.
John Whittingdale, who has just returned to the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) as Minister of State, is the embodiment of the corruption of media policy in this country.
For well over a decade – as an MP, chair of the DCMS Select Committee and briefly as the DCMS Secretary of State – he has been the willing glove puppet of the press lobby, and notably of the Rupert Murdoch organisation. During his spell as Culture Secretary under David Cameron after 2015, he was responsible for the single most immoral act of that government in relation to the media: the sabotage of the Leveson reforms.
His return to the department is proof, if it were needed, that no boundaries of honesty, morality or public probity will restrain Boris Johnson’s Government in trashing what is good and right in Britain’s media landscape and promoting what is bad and wrong.
Whittingdale’s moral nadir to date was the day in October 2015 when, before an adoring audience of newspaper editors, he announced that he intended to stall the introduction of Section 40 of the Crime and courts Act – the central element of the Leveson press regulation reforms. This was outrageous in several respects.
First, it was an open breach of the cross-party consensus which until that moment – and rightly – had governed policy on press matters ever since the decision to establish the Leveson Inquiry in 2011. All that had been achieved since then, and most notably the creation of the Royal Charter on regulation, had been scrupulously non-partisan, which is to say it had been formally agreed by the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats.
But, in 2015, without consulting any other party and without even attempting to justify themselves, Whittingdale and the Conservatives acted alone. This mattered as a matter of principle because politicians should generally avoid involvement in press regulation, and when – as had been the case in 2011-13 – they are forced to engage, it is right that it should be done strictly on terms of cross-party consensus.
It also mattered enormously in practice. Section 40 had two main functions. It was supposed to provide the modest incentives (both carrots and sticks) to push news publishers into engaging with Leveson-standard regulation (which is designed to be both independent and effective). And it was to unlock low-cost access to justice for the public in libel and privacy cases, ending the scandal under which only the rich can uphold their rights against publishers.
Whittingdale blocked both because his friends in the press objected to them. It follows that he personally bears considerable responsibility for the many horrific abuses we have since seen, abuses which these reforms could have prevented – such as the press thuggery towards Muslims and trans people and the hounding of celebrities such as Gareth Thomas, Ben Stokes and Caroline Flack.
You may well say that John Whittingdale has blood on his hands.
At the time and ever since, he has wilfully misled the public about the true nature of Section 40, adopting in full the false ‘threat to press freedom’ rhetoric of his corporate press friends. Are they really his friends?
In the early stages of the phone hacking scandal, when the DCMS Select Committee, which he chaired, was investigating, it emerged then that he was an old personal friend of Les Hinton, Rupert Murdoch’s London number two at the time of the hacking, and had been invited to Hinton’s wedding. He was also friendly with Rebekah Brooks, who had succeeded Hinton and received no public sanction when she refused to give evidence to the committee. Of course, MPs are free to choose their friends, but it is surely unethical for them to have a leading role in the public scrutiny of those friends.
Whittingdale might claim to be vindicated by the fact that the committee produced a report highly critical of the Murdoch organisation, but that happened because he was powerless to prevent it – the Conservatives them being in a minority on the committee.
More potent proof of friendship comes in the form of the conspiracy among national newspapers not to report a story about Whittingdale which, in any other circumstances, they would certainly have splashed across their front pages. This was a scandal in its own right.
At precisely the time when he was making his decision about the future of Section 40, three (possibly four) national newspapers were aware of – and had investigated and verified to the point where they could have published – a lengthy relationship between Whittingdale and a professional dominatrix. None of them published.
You might think they are to be congratulated for showing restraint on what was a private matter – and they certainly congratulated themselves when it did become public. But, the truth is, as the case of Keith Vaz showed, that they were not influenced by those considerations.
Possession of this material placed them in a position where they could, potentially, blackmail a Culture Secretary who was in a position to serve their interests on a matter they considered vital: press regulation.
Scandalous enough, but perhaps it was the position of Whittingdale himself on this matter that was most ethically flawed. He was an elected representative and a member of the Cabinet and he knew that the press had this material and were capable of using it against him at an acutely sensitive time. Yet, he told neither the Prime Minister nor the public. And bear in mind that his action in 2015 made him from that time personally, as a politician and a minister, the arbiter of press regulation, when that should have been a matter of consensus between the parties in Parliament.
One further legacy of Whittingdale’s first tenure at DCMS is worthy of note, not least because it allowed him to combine his animosity towards the BBC with his devotion to the sleazy corporate press: it was he who plundered the BBC’s licence fee to create the Local Democracy Reporter (LDR) scheme, propping up the very companies responsible for the devastation of the regional and local press.
Funded by the BBC, 150 reporting posts were created, almost all of them attached to the established regional and local press companies. Other news publishers benefit, it is true, but the chief benefit clearly goes to host companies that have spent the past 20 years banking healthy operating profits while closing hundred of titles and sacking thousands of journalists.
And thanks to Whittingdale’s design, the scheme has no independent oversight. Although Dame Frances Cairncross stated in her official review of the future of journalism that this should change, the Government has since binned her idea. This means, for example, that no one is counting how many existing reporters have been made redundant because LDRs are filling their space in the pages.
John Whittingdale is the enemy of decent journalism and the friend of all those seeking to destroy it. His reappointment to the DCMS is a disgrace.