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Wednesday, April 13, 2016 

The Whittingdale blues.

Absolutely nothing about the John Whittingdale/dominatrix story seems to make sense.

Let's then take it one step at a time.  If we're to believe Whittingdale's statement from last night, he had no idea that Olivia King was an escort, let alone the proud keeper of a dungeon.  When he did become aware of that fact, he ended the relationship.  No one seems to be as yet disputing it or claiming Whittingdale to be telling lies, so presumably the culture secretary's claim that he met his girlfriend of a few months on Match.com is accurate.

Now, unless I was reading something into the original Byline piece that simply wasn't there, as my take from it was that Whittingdale knew she was an escort and presumably was paying for her to accompany him to events, this is even less of a story than it first appeared.  Even if Nick Mutch is not explicit in saying that was the case, he definitely does claim that "Whittingdale's relationships with prostitutes are said to be well known in the London underworld".  He also quotes an unnamed senior Labour MP as having seen Whittingdale in the Houses of Parliament with a prostitute, although he wasn't sure if she was King or not.

Next, we have the James Cusick piece from Sunday.  This has since been described by another writer on openDemocracy, where the piece has also been hosted, as offering "little to substantiate" a cover-up, while David Elstein points out a number of flaws in Cusick's reasoning.  All of the investigations Cusick details apart from the Independent's took place while the relationship was on-going, before Whittingdale became culture secretary, although he was chair of the influential media committee.  Cusick claims that the Mirror may have dropped its investigation because Whittingdale could have launched a new inquiry into phone-hacking at the newspaper group, although does so in a half-hearted manner.  Similarly, without detailing how, Cusick implies that a similar investigation at the Mail on Sunday was dropped because Whittingdale was "viewed as an asset" by the Mail group.  Finally, Cusick details how things went with the Independent's own belated investigation, attempting to widen out the justification for a rather basic salacious story to claims about expenses not being paid, then to possible hypocrisy charges over Whittingdale's membership of the Cornerstone group.  Again, it ended with the editor shutting it down without apparent explanation.

To some, that four separate newspaper groups all failed to bring the story to print is indicative of a cover-up.  It's also certainly true that equally lacking stories about the private lives of politicians have been printed of late, including Brooks Newmark flopping the old johnson out of his pyjamas for an undercover hack, and the unforgettable Lord Sewel, in red bra, snorting cocaine off the breast of the sex worker who stitched him up.  A far more prosaic explanation is that even by the standards of those two stories, Whittingdale's adventures in online dating were much less exciting.  He's divorced, he didn't know King was a dominatrix in her spare time, and the only evidence they had were some very unrevealing photographs.  Why would the papers other than Independent drop the story on the basis Whittingdale could be useful to them in the future when they couldn't be certain of his career trajectory?  The Mirror phone hacking explanation also doesn't stand up to the slightest scrutiny.

This isn't to take the claims of former and current hacks at first sightAs Francis Wheen quoted by Anorak has it, both the bizarre arguments being put forward by Hacked Off representatives that this was someone whose privacy should have been invaded, and the claims from the Thurlbecks and Wallises of this world are unbelievable.  Clearly the story was of interest to the tabloids, and the Independent; they just in the end decided it couldn't stand up.  I don't think Leveson is of any relevance here at all; the decision was simply made that MP unwittingly dates sex worker is a bit sad rather than scandalous.  You can see this in the way the Indie flailed around desperately for any justification long after the fact, as I described is always the way yesterday.  First you get the story, then you make something up to claim it's in the public interest.  Like Flying Rodent, I think this story would have been more in the public interest than the case the tabloids are up in arms about, but that's barely.  The reason why there's such a disparity is obvious, also: pop star up to shameless sexual antics sells papers; MP gets todger out on Twitter wins awards, if that.

Likewise, the cries from Labour that Whittingdale should stand aside from his role in directing legislation concerning regulation of the press due to his conflict of interest don't now really apply when, err, any conflict is out in the open.  The sword of damocles Chris Bryant lyrically brought up, even if we accept it was a thing despite there being no evidence, is now gone thanks to the exposing of the story.  As Roy Greenslade and others have argued, there does seem to be a lot of overstating of Whittingdale's role.  Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act shouldn't be imposed for the reason that it is grossly unfair, nor has there ever been a realistic suggestion it was going to be brought in; similarly, there is no appetite whatsoever among the Tories as a whole for staging the second part of the Leveson inquiry.  It's hardly just Whittingdale.  The same goes for bias against the BBC: the Tories don't like Auntie, simple as.  Whoever ends up being culture secretary you can guarantee will be just as critical as Whittingdale has been.

I can then understand why people think something stinks, agree this will certainly be something to bring up the next time a politician is caught with their pants down by a newspaper justifying their expose as in the public interest, and still think that on this occasion at least some are looking just that little bit too hard.  Which includes the BBC, Private Eye, et al, who now the story is out there are justified to ask the questions they have.  I also agree with Anna Raccoon when she writes on how Olivia King has every right to be thoroughly cheesed off with the press a whole.

Is that OK with everyone?

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