Reporter – ’Boss! I have shocking news. I have evidence that a senior backbencher has paid for sex!’
Editor – ‘That is appalling. I am astonished and revolted.’
Reporter – ‘There’s more, boss. He’s married! So he has also committed . . . adultery!’
Editor (picking himself up off the floor) – ‘Adultery too! I can scarcely believe it. The nation must be told immediately of this outrageous behaviour.’
Ridiculous? Of course. Yet the editor of Press Gazette is inviting us to believe that something like this happened at the Sunday Mirror and the Mail on Sunday in the case of Keith Vaz. In a blog this week he suggested that the deciding reason Vaz was exposed by those papers, although they had chosen not to publish in the similar case of John Whittingdale, was that the Vaz story involved allegations of adultery and paying for sex.
‘I sometimes wonder,’ he wrote wistfully, ‘whether journalists are more socially conservative than their readers on these matters.’
No, it doesn’t wash. No 21st century journalist could possibly be shocked to learn that people pay for sex and commit adultery, still less could they believe that they might constitute public interest justifications for the intrusion required to prove them.
Why is the editor of Press Gazette putting forward such an argument? Because the alternative is to admit what I suspect most people recognise without needing a moment’s reflection: newspapers were delighted to expose Vaz, but the Whittingdale story, though similar, was one which, for reasons far removed from morality, they chose to withhold from the public.
Here the editor of Press Gazette had painted himself into a corner, for when – no thanks to the national press – the Whittingdale story broke last April, he wrote in defence of the papers, quoting ‘Fleet Street insiders’ as giving six reasons for not publishing. They were:
- Whittingdale was not married
- He had not broken the law
- He had not broken parliamentary rules
- He had not portrayed a false image
- He was not high-profile enough to ring bells with readers
- The relationship finished before he became a Cabinet minister.
Back in April this list was already hard to credit since scrupulousness of this kind is hardly the normal style of our national press. But in deference to the editor let us take it at face value.
If you apply the same standards to Vaz as he suggests were applied to Whittingdale (and even on some of these criteria the papers would have to have been pretty generous to the then Media Secretary) you will find it very hard to justify publication.
Starting at the bottom, Vaz was never a Cabinet minister and though he was a select committee chairman that had also been Whittingdale’s position before his promotion. Vaz is certainly no more prominent than Whittingdale was, and by most measures he is less so. Whether Vaz portrayed a false image or broke parliamentary rules is just about as debatable as it was in the Whittingdale case. And nobody suggests that either man broke the law.
That leaves adultery as the only cover for the Press Gazette editor, who throws in paying for sex too – that did not arise in the Whittingdale case.
Almost nobody makes a fuss about adultery these days. It is doubtless as common in the newsrooms of the Sunday Mirror and the Mail on Sunday as it is in any other office. It is simply not a justification for exposure in such a case, and if you cited it in court you would be laughed at.
As for paying for sex, that is not illegal, and while there is a strong modern case for disapproval that case tends to be made by feminists. We surely can’t be asked to believe that the Sunday Mirror and the Mail on Sunday have embraced those values.
There is no escaping it. The Vaz case is proof, if it were needed, of a double standard in our national papers. They published their story about him and claimed a public interest justification. In the Whittingdale case they could have made almost exactly the same claims but they chose not to publish.
Whittingdale, we should remember, was useful to them, first as chair of the Commons media select committee and later as Media Secretary. While at least three national newspapers sat on an exposé capable of causing this Cabinet minister serious damage, he was taking a number of important and highly unusual decisions that ran counter to the will of Parliament but – strikingly – served the interests of national newspaper proprietors and editors.
Even if in the Whittingdale case the newspapers had suffered an attack of high-mindedness on the six grounds listed above, another and far more compelling justification was available to them – here was a minister who was potentially open to covert pressure from an industry that was part of his remit. But still they didn’t publish.
The moral? These newspapers may boast that they operate in the public interest, but they only do so when it suits their own interests. Little wonder that, when it comes to having the trust of the public, the British press is at the very bottom of the European league .
(For the avoidance of confusion: nothing in this article is meant to imply that I do not believe that publishing the Vaz story was justified. There is a discussion of that point here).