scrutiny of the press will not be undermined by a top Conservative having sex with a prostitute and newspapers choosing not to report it, Downing Street has said.
John Whittingdale’s relations with a dominatrix escort he met on social dating site Match.com is not reason for him to stand down as Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, nor will it interfere with the second Leveson enquiry when it eventually takes place, a spokesperson for the Prime Minister said.
Defending the Minister’s competence, Mr Cameron is said to be happy for Mr Whittingdale to continue overseeing Leveson Part II, which will look into the extent of phone hacking at the News of the World.
A spokesperson said: “The Prime Minister has full confidence in John Whittingdale to carry out all his duties.
“John Whittingdale views this as something in the past and dealt with and (the Prime Minister) has got full confidence in him to do his job as Culture Secretary.”
It is understood the Prime Minister first learnt about the report on the internet and was not told in advance by the Minister, however the pair have spoken since.
There has been mounting pressure for Mr Whittingdale to withdraw from decisions on press regulation from Labour and campaign group Hacked Off after his relationship emerged.
The Minister, who is single, said at no time was he aware of the woman’s real occupation as a sex worker and had stopped seeing her in 2014 when it emerged someone was trying to sell a story about him to the tabloid press.
Despite several newspaper editors knowing about the relationship for two years, it did not appear in print or in online publications, leading to claims from Hacked Off that there was a deliberate effort not to print it.
Brian Cathcart, a founder of Hacked Off, said the story “absolutely” should have been published. He said: “It was not a story about his private life. The newspapers have had cast iron public interest justifications to publish this story since the beginning.”
He said he thinks the newspapers “stocked up” the story for future use and as a way to possibly put “pressure on him”.
In December concern arose over the likelihood of the promised second part of the Leveson enquiry taking place, despite assurances from the Prime Minister in the House of Commons that it would.
The first part looked at the culture, practices and ethics of the British press and published a 2,000-page report in November 2012.
Among those giving evidence were actor Hugh Grant and comedian Steve Coogan.
The second part, looking at specific claims about phone-hacking at the News of the World and what went wrong with the original police investigation, was delayed pending the conclusion of criminal prosecutions against journalists.
The Prime Minister’s spokesperson said Mr Cameron would not ‘pass judgement’ on newspapers choosing not to report the relationship, and decisions on the next instalment of Leveson will be made after criminal proceedings are over.
Dr Evan Harris, executive director of Hacked Off, said he thinks Mr Whittingdale now needs to be clear about whether he knew newspapers had the story and were not running it. And if he did know, why he did not tell the Prime Minister on his appointment to the Cabinet that this “potential and glaring personal conflict of interest existed”.
The executive director of the Society of Editors, Bob Satchwell, said: “The idea that the newspapers and broadcasters could all get together and say ‘we are not running the story’ is just silly.”
Mr Satchwell said the story seemed to be “more about the dangers of using dating websites”.
“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.
Shadow Culture Secretary Maria Eagle said Mr Whittingdale should now withdraw from decisions on press regulation voluntarily as the revelations raised serious questions about whether he is fully committed to pushing for Part 2 of the Leveson inquiry to take place.