John Whittingdale has a right to a private life

24 Apr 2016


Consenting single adult man has relationship with consenting single adult woman, and no newspaper feels the need to brandish it across their front page


This article is going to be very unusual coming from me. Anyone who knows me knows that I love the BBC. I love what it stands for (independent broadcasting and investigative journalism as well as entertainment - as a service for the public rather than in pursuit of profit) and I love what it produces. And anyone who knows me also knows that I am not a Tory. I respect conservative aims and values but I agree with the Conservative Party on almost nothing at all. I can never picture myself voting Conservative. Yet in this article I intend to almost betray all of my values – I am going to stand up for a Tory cabinet minister and slam the BBC. 


My first reaction when I heard the "story" about John Whittingdale's non-adulterous, completely above board relationship with a woman who happened to be a prostitute was not condemnation of the Culture Secretary, but rather condemnation of the fact that this was considered "news." Indeed, I found myself, for the first and (I hope) the last time, supporting the tabloids' decision not to print this so-called "news." And when I found out that this story had been dug up by the BBC from the back passages of the internet and gossip magazines, and given copious amounts of air-time on Newsnight, I was shocked. The very institution that I had respected – quite rightly in my view – in the past for being above this sort of salacious gossip and smear reported a story full of the stuff. Their coverage of Leveson and phone-hacking had earned that respect. And yet every value I had attributed to the Beeb had been abandoned. 


And then I remembered that John Whittingdale is not just any cabinet minister - he's the Culture Secretary, and the BBC's royal charter is up for renewal in the next two years. And then I remembered that John Whittingdale – the very man that the BBC chose to smear even when the tabloids (unusually) did not – was sceptical of the BBC's value in public life. Coincidence? I'd take some convincing. It is my view that the BBC is trying to smear the Culture Secretary to have him removed from office, or at the very least have his responsibility over the media removed over the "failure" of the tabloids to print what is a non-story (and therefore a non-existent conflict of interest) – and have him replaced with someone more supportive of Auntie Beeb.  


A cynical view to take, I know. However, when you strip the story down the headline would essentially read: "Consenting single adult man has relationship with consenting single adult woman, and no newspaper feels the need to brandish it across their front page." He broke no laws, and ended the relationship when he found out she was a dominatrix. As simple as that. There were no legal or security implications. No adultery. No hypocrisy. The papers didn't publish it because it is a non-story that doesn't affect Whittingdale's work nor anyone else's life. It was a private matter that affected nothing else. When you consider this you can't help but wonder why the BBC needed to mention it at all. And that's when it starts to seem like less of a coincidence. 


Despite all this, the attempts to smear the Culture Secretary may be harming the BBC's case rather than helping it. Part of the BBC's mission is free, objective, independent journalism, which this story plainly does not constitute. Not only are they betraying their values (values I love the Beeb for), but they are also waging a war against the minister who will decide their fate. And it is a war that the BBC seems to be losing. The story hasn’t dented John Whittingdale and most people have reacted with either indifference or disbelief that this can even be considered a story. I don't want to see the BBC neutered or abolished, but that's the way they'll go if they start adopting tabloid tactics to achieve an overtly political agenda. 


This incident also raises the question of privacy for celebrities and politicians. How far does public interest extend? How much right do the public have to be told about above board relationships with people who just happen to work in the sex industry? If he was paying the dominatrix for sex then I could understand the outrage – he would have committed a criminal act. But he didn't. He was in a loving six-month relationship and broke up with her when he found out. Is that really in the public interest? I can see public interest when it comes to a politican's financial affairs, as they're making the financial decisions that affect the rest of us. I can see the interest in the private life of a politician who preaches traditional family values but plays by a different rule book in private. But that's as far as invasion of privacy should go. 


The Whittingdale incident is just part of a long story regarding invasion of privacy by the British media. Whether it be salacious stories about Steve Coogan or hacked phone messages of a murdered teenager - does the public really have the need to know? Are these stories really in the public interest? I would argue not. I am all for a free press. Press censorship is dangerous and a key part of liberal democracy is freedom of the press. But surely another key feature of a liberal democracy is the right to privacy? The press can argue any story is relevant with the simple words "Public Interest," but realistically, how would we feel if stories about our own private lives were splashed across the front pages? Would our behaviour really have impacted the lives of the general public? Does it enhance press freedom to publish deeply personal stories that have no bearing on the public and are mostly non-controversial? 


We have learnt nothing from the hard truths we faced during the Leveson Inquiry. Our current system might be fair for the papers but it's not fair for those whose private lives are being dragged into the public spotlight, when surely we should have no right or need to know. Celebrities have just as much right to a private life in a liberal democracy as the rest of us do. The job of the press should be holding to account those in power, and those in the public eye when they do something illegal or hypocritical. I can't help but wonder if it's unfair that celebrities' private lives have now become a popular and acceptable topic of conversation. We need to seriously start looking at how we, as a society, can balance media freedom with a right to privacy, because the current status quo is not fit for purpose.


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