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Anti-free-speech conspiracy theories are impossible to reconcile with the sorry state of Fleet Street

For weeks, Westminster has been full of rumours about the private life of a certain cabinet member. It was said he had started to visit a dominatrix in Earl’s Court but ended up falling in love with her and taking her to official functions. Like a Westminster remake of the film Pretty Woman, in fact, but with the Culture Secretary, John Whitting-dale, playing the part of Richard Gere. There was much comment in Parliament about this, and jokes about what London is coming to if an MP has to travel all the way to Earl’s Court for such services, when they used to be available a stone’s throw away from the Commons. And on it went.

The story did not appear in the press for a simple reason: it was, in most part, an invention. Politicians gossip like fishwives, and political journalists know them to be deeply unreliable sources about each other’s private lives. Approached by the BBC, Mr Whittingdale was forced to disclose the rather embarrassing truth: about two years ago, he met a woman of a similar age on a dating website. He discovered later that she was a sex worker, so he ended the relationship after six months. Four newspapers had established as much but, seeing no public interest, decided not to publish.

All of this has infuriated Hacked Off, the pressure group that lost its campaign for state regulation of the press. The episode undermines their portrayal of British newspapers as being staffed by ‘feral beasts’. The phrase is Tony Blair’s, but it encapsulates the old cliché that the press gleefully publishes all manner of salacious gossip, true or not, and that only the sober hand of government can impose proper standards. Now, Hacked Off is making the opposite case: that a prudish British press is violating the public’s right to know about who John Whittingdale met on Match.com.

Labour’s demands that Whittingdale recuses himself from the issue of press regulation is intended to develop Hacked Off’s conspiracy theory that Whittingdale has gone easy on the press because he was being blackmailed.

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