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Why did newspapers gagging to unmask superinjunction ‘celebrity threesome’ not publish John Whittingdale story?

Paul Connew is a media commentator and broadcaster, former editor of the Sunday Mirror and Deputy Editor of the Daily Mirror, and co-author of After Leveson.

The saga of culture secretary John Whittingdale, the dominatrix 'girlfriend' and the story the national press didn't publish at the risk of being damned is certainly a conspiracy theorist's 'wet dream'.

According to some, it exposes a sinister conspiracy between the culture secretary and newspapers with a vested interest in either protecting or holding a 'Sword of Damocles' over his regulatory head.

According to others, Hacked Off and the BBC, via its airing of the story on Newsnight and subsequent hefty news coverage, have their own agenda for putting the cabinet minister to a sword thrust of their own.

The reason, so this theory goes, is that Hacked Off is hacked off by virtue (or vice, in its eyes) that the minister with responsibility for press regulation has 'gone soft' on its perceived holy writ of Lord Justice Leveson.

The truth, I suspect, is far more mundane and nuanced and much less fodder for the more fevered conspiracy theorists.

The reason the national newspapers (at least four of them) who had known about the story and been offered the 'kiss and sell' details held off had at least (and probably more) to do with post-Leveson caution than a grand design to protect Whittingdale personally or turn him into a pliant puppet of the press.

OK, I'll accept that it was a finely balanced dilemma over whether the story was or wasn't justified in the 'public interest’.

And, OK again, I'll concede it was a little on the strange side that the Sun, People, Mail on Sunday and the Independent ALL came to the conclusion independently that it was off-limits. But Leveson's legacy can sometimes do surprising things to concentrate the minds of usually 'fearless' editors, folks.

Predictably Hacked Off was swift to launch into 'cover up' scandal mode, pointing an outraged finger at the newspapers in question. There’s an obvious irony in the campaigners in favour of more privacy against the 'prurient' press now protesting that its arch-enemies had 'failed' to project Whittingdale's sex life into the public domain.

Call it Hacked Off trying to, er, whip up a scandal over the minister and the dominatrix. Irony indeed.

But timing, as any half-decent comedian and conspiracy theorist knows, is everything.

And the explosion of the Whittingdale story into the consciousness of the largely (non-media savvy) public at the same time as the heated and very public controversy over the superinjunction granted to a married celebrity involved in a bedroom 'threesome' certainly added extra spice to the mix.

I spent Tuesday morning on BBC TV's Victoria Derbyshire show debating an old adversary, prominent media lawyer and former Hacked Off board member Charlotte Harris on the injunction issue.

For my part, I argued in favour of the Sun on Sunday, Daily Mail and others’ stance that the injunction was unjust, absurd and made an ass of the law when, in the internet age, the story was being widely published both online and in print in the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and far more widely – not to mention Scotland! – and amounted to an abuse of free speech, a free press and the public's right to know. Harris argued equally passionately the other way.

Funnily enough in the green room beforehand we'd chatted about the Whittingdale story, well known for a long time to almost anyone on the national media/media law scene – as well as being extensively reported online by the investigative journalist website Byline and commented on by its followers across social media platforms. But not being covered, of course, by the national papers.

We pondered whether or not that omerta line would last indefinitely or not, little suspecting what was to happen a few hours later via Private Eye and Newsnight.

Quite how perplexing it looks to the public, however, was brought home to me by the late night phone call straight after Newsnight from a doctor friend.

“I saw you on TV this morning arguing in favour of the papers who want the celebrity injunction overturned, but can you explain to me why some of those same papers decided against publishing the Whittingdale tale? Aren't they both about famous people, sex and the public's right to know?”

I tried to explain why there were at least some key differences. But she wasn't convinced and I'm sure she's far from alone in that regardless whether you're pro or anti-Leveson, or whether you're left or right wing politically.

Inevitably Labour were quick to pounce, despite Jeremy Corbyn's decision not to raise the Whittingdale issue directly with David Cameron at PMQs. But other Labour front benchers are loudly arguing that there is a 'conflict of interest' issue that should disqualify the Culture Secretary from his media regulatory role, effectively a resignation question.

Cameron hardly needed a new 'Trustgate' row – this time focused on his culture secretary – on the back of the ongoing Brexit revolt, the budget shambles and the Panama Papers fallout. Corbyn's omission of any Whittingdale questions at PMQs offered only a soupcon of relief, perhaps.

The prime minister has declared his 'full confidence' in Whittingdale, even if there was a hint of the football chairman/manager scenario about it. With some Downing Street sources briefing that the PM hadn't been aware of the story when Whittingdale was appointed to his Cabinet role, raising the question of whether the appointment would have been made if he had.

Interestingly, there have long been rumours that Whittingdale wasn't first choice, but got the role after a man with loftier ambitions – name of Boris Johnson – turned it down.

But there is little doubt that Cameron badly needs to stand by his man now and face down Labour and Hacked Off's pressure.... unless more damning 'evidence' about hits the public domain than we've seen so far.

So is John Whittingdale fatally damaged? It's another finely balanced question. For my part I think Whittingdale is an honourable man, who proved himself a 'no fear no favour' chair of the influential Culture, Media, Sport Select Committee during the phone hacking scandal and the Murdochs’ grilling by MPs.

I think too he's right to challenge the more dangerous aspects of Leveson, including the flawed notion that newspapers who win libel disputes should have to pay the losers’ costs if they haven't signed up to the political 'fix' system devised by politicians under the archaic, unacceptable Royal Charter dreamt up by Hacked Off among others.

But the big question is whether Whittingdale can retain public trust as culture secretary. Or whether Joe and Jane Public veer towards Labour's argument.

Another close call that could well partly hinge on how the mainstream papers cover the story from now on and how well they explain to readers their reasons for not publishing before.

Only one thing is now certain, this story has some way to run, both in print and online and the conspiracy theories will run along with them.

Wearing my PR hat, I'd suggest Whittingdale's biggest mistake wasn't to 'romance' a woman with a whip but not to seize the initiative and go public himself once he knew the story was being touted around.

In short, he could have invaded his own privacy, given his own version, thwarted the 'kiss and sell' party, denied the conspiracy theorists their opportunity and done the newspapers a favour for free in the process.

But hindsight is easy. Rather like conspiracy theories in fact.

Paul Connew is a media commentator, broadcaster, former editor Sunday Mirror, deputy editor Daily Mirror & co-author of ‘After Leveson'

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