So our Culture Secretary is the latest politician to find his affairs in the spotlight – oddly because of a lack of press intrusion into what some might argue is his private life.
A number of newspapers – the People, Sun, Mail on Sunday and The Independent (whatever happened to that one?) were aware that John Whittingdale was having a relationship with a woman he met on line and who he later discovered was a ‘sex worker’. Her occupation came to light, it appears, when someone tried to interest the tabloids in a story about his private life.
None of the newspapers ran the story as they did not feel it was in the public interest. That decision has been defended by at least one former editor who’s now a media academic and commentator and who believes they were right that there was no genuine story.
The other view is that the papers were running scared of the man who was then chair of the Commons Culture, Media and Sport committee in the wake of the, then, recently concluded Leveson inquiry. He did not have the power he now holds as Culture Secretary to determine the shape of press regulation but not getting in his face may have seemed like a wise decision.
The question of what constitutes the public interest is always tricky (try running some examples past a group of journalism students if you want an idea of how thorny the discussions can get) – but the issue here is surely that this is another example of the erosion of trust.
Coming off the back of the saga of David Cameron’s financial affairs we hardly needed reminding that a large number of people are ready to believe our politicians are capable of anything when it comes to looking after their own interests. But the fact that a significant number of people are questioning the newspapers’ motives in not running the Whittingdale story is a clear indication that the level trust in our press and media is also extremely low.
Why is there public interest, as is currently being argued in the sex lives of a couple of celebrities in an admittedly open marriage and not in the sex life of a Member of Parliament elected, at least in part, for his judgment? It may be that when we are able to publish the details of the celebs a public interest will become clear – but in the meantime it’s hard to see how John Whittingdale’s story was so different from those of other public figures whose foibles have been the stuff of published stories.
I have to admit I’m not much interested in anyone’s sex life and generally believe that what we get up to in our bedrooms – and other people’s – is our own business and not anyone else’s but there is a real concern which arises from this story. If our perception is that our politicians need to be under constant scrutiny who will we trust to carry that out? Lack of trust in our political leaders may be something we’ve all learned to live with – but not having media we can trust leaves a lacuna in democracy.