Bob Satchwell, executive director of the Society of Editors, said the decision of newspapers not to publish the story about John Whittingdale’s relationship with a sex worker showed how much the industry had changed since the days of sexual exposés about ministers such as David Mellor.
“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 added.
The time when the first tabloids were investigating Whittingdale in 2013, was shortly after Leveson inquiry into press standards concluded in end of 2012. The Independent Press Standards Organisation (Ipso), the revamped industry-backed regulator, came into force in September 2014 after the newspaper groups rejected attempts to create a royal charter-backed regulator.
Hugh Tomlinson QC, described as “go-to media silk” for claimants against newspapers, told the Guardian that he was surprised about the tabloid reticence over pictures of the culture secretary and a dominatrix even in the post-Leveson environment. “The question is really why they didn’t [run the story],” he told the Guardian. “They obviously thought it was worth investigating.”
Charlotte Harris, another seasoned media lawyer, said she would object if revelations about person’s private life were being used to try to depose them. “I would hate for someone to be ruined just because the newspapers find out something potentially embarrassing,” she said.
She was one of a number of lawyers to point out the power of editors to self-censor.
“When it comes down to it, editors decide who it is they are going to attack,” she added.
Some have suggested that the fact that four newspapers investigated Whittingdale’s personal life between 2013 and 2015 and did not produce a story amounted to a conspiracy of silence. Media lawyer Mark Stephens, a senior member at law firm Howard Kennedy, said: “I think this idea that the media were completely in on this and decided to tuck the story away for later, it doesn’t really stand scrutiny.”
However, in recent months, the pressures on the newspaper industry has receded with delays in both the second part of the Leveson inquiry and the highly controversial imposition of costs on the industry.
“Over the past year there’s more or less been a return to the old fashioned kiss and tell,” says Tomlinson. “The position is now very similar to the position before Leveson. There were basically no privacy injunctions against the media for about three years.”
Over the past six months, all that has changed. A media lawyer, who said he was too busy seeking injunctions against newspapers to want to be named, said: “Sex is back would be the tabloid summary.” Unless perhaps, it involves sex with a cabinet minister.
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