John Whittingdale


John Whittingdale is the Culture Secretary in the British government, a position that he has held since May 2015. Prior to that he was Chair of the Parliamentary select committee on Culture, Media, and Sport. While he held the earlier post he entered a relationship with a woman whom he later discovered she was a sex worker. At that point he ended the relationship and appears to have given it much further thought until it made the news in April 2016. Both the opposition Labour Party and the press regulation campaign Hacked Off called for restrictions on his role in deciding press regulation matters because they claimed that he was compromised by the fact that four newspapers knew about the story, but chose not to publish. There are several factors that make this a complete non-story: the relationship was ended a long time ago, Whittingdale can hardly be compromised if the details are now very public, and single man has sex is no longer considered scandalous or newsworthy in the United Kingdom.

Not all in the Labour Party agree that anything should be made of the revelation that a single man had a sexual relationship, but those who do are engaging in the typical trench warfare of party politics that passes for parliamentary practice, even in a party whose leader promised (as all new leaders do) to introduce a more positive way of doing politics. Those gunning for Whittingdale probably have at the back of their mind that the last time a Conservative government lost power it was as a result of a series of sleazy headlines about the government of John Major. That some Labour politicians are trying to make political capital out of this is not surprising, but the actions of Hacked Off are shocking, or would be to anyone unfamiliar with their unprincipled campaigning methods.

Hacked Off campaigns for a free and accountable press in the United Kingdom and has its roots in the inquiry into the phone hacking scandal. That scandal involved the News of the World tabloid paying someone to hack into mobile phone answering services to glean information and then deleting the messages to prevent other newspapers gaining the same information. This came to a head when the mobile phone of murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler was hacked, which led to the closure of News of the World. Hacked Off was involved in negotiating the parameters of the public inquiry that became the Leveson Report and have since campaigned for the full implementation of that report into law. In other words, Hacked Off campaigns for the press to respect individuals' privacy. Yet despite this their website has an article from their campaigner Brian Cathcart trying to make mileage out of the fact that newspapers did not publish a story that would have been an invasion of Whittingdale's privacy. The irony borders on rank hypocrisy as Hacked Off are condemning the press for behaving in the way that Hacked Off campaign for the press to behave.

This is mild, however, compared to their indiscretion almost exactly three years earlier. Just as the Leveson Report looked like it would pass through parliament a transgender schoolteacher Lucy Meadows took her own life. Even though it was not confirmed as a suicide until the inquest two months later there was a flurry of activism in the week between Meadows death and funeral. This activism was driven by the fact that Meadows had been a victim of press invasion of privacy and in the absence of information to the contrary it was assumed that she had taken her life because of the press harassment, even those it ended three months before her death. The inquest in May 2013 revealed that the press harassment was not the cause of her suicide and also revealed that she was successful in a complaint that she made to the Press Complaints Commission against the Daily Mail. Although none of them admitted it a lot of activists had egg on their face when the inquest result was declared. One of the organisations who failed to own up to their error was Hacked Off, who engaged in one of the most egregious interventions in the case.

Hugh Tomlinson is a barrister who both won a case in the phone hacking scandal and is chair of Hacked Off. In the run-up to Meadows funeral he re-published an article on Hacked Off that he had published on his Inforrm campaigning website two days earlier. In this article he quotes from the Guardian part of an email sent by Meadows to a friend and uses that as part of his argument for using her case to support further press regulation. He does this despite this email being private correspondence from someone who died four days before he quoted from it and he does not criticise the Guardian (or himself) for engaging in precisely the privacy invasion that Hacked Off campaigns against.

As ironic as it is for Hacked Off to criticise the press for respecting John Whittingdale's privacy it pales into insignificance beside the Hacked Off chair invading the privacy of someone whose funeral had not yet taken place.

© Mercia McMahon. All rights reserved