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Exposing the Dan Wootton scandal was a long time in the making. The TV presenter’s behaviour – like so much else – had been an open secret in the established media for some years. But, unlike other big names in his profession, the press wasn’t willing to go near his story. It still isn’t. Why?
The reaction to our revelations about Wootton’s catfishing tactics, which he used to trick and bribe men into providing sexually compromising material, has reaffirmed to me why Byline Times was so badly needed.
Without fear or favour, and funded by our readers, for us, this investigation has never been about personalities or politics, score-settling or our own private interests: it’s about the forces that shape us – including one of the most powerful, the established media.
How does wrongdoing thrive in institutions that set themselves up as society’s moral arbiters? And what are the structural and political factors that explain why these ‘moral arbiters’ refuse to hold themselves to account?
Why has the Dan Wootton scandal been published by a small, independent, reader-funded newspaper – at our own considerable risk – when major media outlets have the resources and reach at their disposal for exactly this sort of work?
These are questions we all need to ask.
Wootton’s career has taken him inside the newsrooms of the country’s most powerful tabloids and given him privileged access to celebrity, monarchy and scandal. It is in the public interest to expose how he has used this power and influence, and how his behaviour has impacted the individuals he targeted, as well as contributing to a wider toxic media culture.
But, while Byline Times’ investigation has received coverage by some mainstream outlets, they are yet to delve very much deeper into the story themselves. Private praise from surprising quarters and plaudits behind closed doors have come our way for finally lifting the lid on this secret scandal, but publicly the response has been muted.
In part, legal threats will have had a chilling effect. Wootton denies any allegations of criminality and, following the publication of the first part of our investigation, his representatives wrote to a number of outlets condemning our work – while offering no denial that he created the identities of ‘Martin Branning’ or ‘Maria Joseph’ to pursue his antics online.
Although Wootton dismissed us as a “hard-left blog” and launched a crowdfunder to supposedly take legal action against Byline Times, a parliamentary committee has demanded answers from his former employer The Sun, which has launched an investigation with legal counsel; and Mail Online has suspended his lucrative column pending its own inquiries.
As Byline Times’ Co-Founder and Executive Editor, Peter Jukes, observes in this month’s print edition, there is a “key problem with the proprietors and senior executives of other news organisations when it comes to covering the Wootton story: they are either historically complicit, scared of what information the former Sun and Mail Online columnist might still hold on them, or worried about their future working relationships with Wootton and his current employers GB News”. And so we have “the silence of the lambs”.
But legal threats are just one of the obstacles we have faced.
In the days after publishing our first article, an email hack attack was made on one of our reporters, while the other had what appeared to be blood smeared on his car window. Menacing calls and emails followed, now being pursued by police.
These physical threats started after Wootton used his nightly GB News show, on which he continues to enjoy a platform, to denounce Byline Times’ work as “dark forces” trying to bring the channel down live on air – a monologue this newspaper has submitted a formal complaint about to broadcast regulator Ofcom.
But Wootton was right that “dark forces” are at play.
For these are the base instincts outlets such as GB News, the Mail and The Sun – and journalists like himself – regularly feed. The endless headlines and soundbites declaring the latest enemy ‘other’ seek to exploit the shadows that lie within us all; the worst instincts we’re all capable of succumbing to.
Wootton’s story, then, is both personal and political. Psychologically, it evokes issues of identity and self knowledge, of the way we all have different characteristics and personas, and how they can clash and split apart – in sometimes dangerous ways – if they do not speak to each other and integrate.
But the personal soon becomes political in a media system that preys on our psychological weaknesses and obsessions, which seeks to confuse and compel rather than clarify and resolve. As Rupert Murdoch once said, any newspaper that seeks to do that can be a “great power for evil”.
Attacking Byline Times as “dark forces” may have opened us up to threats – but it also threw light on a much bigger shadow we must all grapple with.
This newspaper will continue to help our readers to do so. Our special #MediaToo investigation is ongoing.
Thank you to all of our subscribers and readers for your support so far. And to Dan Evans and Tom Latchem, whose work on this story shows how investigative journalism, at its very best, can be used to shine a light on those dark places – and show the shadows for what they are.
Hardeep Matharu is the Editor of Byline Times
Do you have any information for our special investigation? Contact Byline Times confidentially by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org