London (AFP) – A British Cabinet minister’s admission that he had a relationship with a sex worker prompted a fresh row over press ethics Wednesday after it emerged that four newspapers knew the story but did not print it.
Culture Secretary John Whittingdale, who takes key decisions on press regulation, confirmed late Tuesday that the relationship had taken place following online news reports.
The news has prompted claims that newspapers deliberately suppressed the story because of Whittingdale’s role in implementing reforms recommended by the 2012 Leveson report into British press ethics.
The Leveson inquiry was prompted by a scandal about journalists hacking into celebrities’ mobile phones, which led to the closure of Britain’s top-selling newspaper, the Rupert Murdoch-owned News of the World, in 2011.
The BBC said four newspapers investigated the relationship, which took place before Whittingdale became culture secretary last May, but decided that reporting on it was not in the public interest.
“This is an old story which was a bit embarrassing at the time,” Whittingdale said in a statement to the broadcaster.
“Between August 2013 and February 2014, I had a relationship with someone who I first met through Match.com,” added the 56-year-old, who is single.
“At no time did she give me any indication of her real occupation and I only discovered this when I was made aware that someone was trying to sell a story about me to tabloid newspapers. As soon as I discovered, I ended the relationship.”
The main opposition Labour party said Whittingdale should be stripped of his involvement in press regulation to remove any suspicion of “undue influence” being exerted in his dealings with the press.
“It seems the press were quite deliberately holding a sword of Damocles over John Whittingdale,” Labour shadow cabinet minister Chris Bryant said.
A senior government source said Prime Minister David Cameron has “full confidence” in his minister.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, the source added that the premier had only learned about Whittingdale’s relationship 10 days ago when it emerged on the internet.
Before becoming a minister, Whittingdale was chairman of House of Commons Culture, Media and Sport Committee, which scrutinised legislation relating to the media.
Brian Cathcart of Hacked Off, which says it campaigns for a free and accountable press, said he believed newspapers had “stocked up” the story as a way to pressure Whittingdale and said the minister was “compromised”.
But Bob Satchwell of the Society of Editors, which supports media freedom, dismissed the idea of newspapers collaborating to hold back the story.
“Since the Leveson report and the establishment of a new and tougher press regulator, papers have become extremely careful about stories involving anyone in public life,” he said.