Drawn swords in the digital age: #Whittingdale

Earlier this week, the UK Culture Secretary,  John Whittingdale, faced allegations about his private life. Specifically, how the newspapers’ decision whether or not to report the story might affect his role as minister with responsibility for the press. I wrote an article for The Conversation trying to place the controversy in its historical context as part of a battle between authority and the news media. You can read that here, and a version follows below.

THE WORDS are those of weapons and power, whether real or metaphorical. Today, political opponents of the Culture Secretary, John Whittingdale, suggest that he has been subject to a ‘sword of Damocles’ over a relationship with a sex worker.

In 2010, the then Business Secretary, Vince Cable, announced to undercover reporters that he had ‘declared war’ on Rupert Murdoch. In the 1990s, the Conservative Cabinet minister, Jonathan Aitken, promised to fight with ‘the simple sword of truth and the trusty shield of fair play’ to ‘cut out the cancer of bent and twisted journalism’ – yet it was he who came off second best in the end. Earlier in the last century, Stanley Baldwin – frustrated with the newspaper tycoons of his age – accused them of seeking ‘power without responsibility – the prerogative of the harlot through the ages.’

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A casualty in an earlier battle between press and power? The last edition of the ‘News of the World’, 2011

The common theme in this warlike talk is the battle between political power and the news media — in whatever form. As far back as the 15th century, the Tudors, coming to the throne with a questionable claim to the crown, made sure that they controlled the chroniclers, and the printing press, as closely as possible. These were the new media of their day — and the Tudors understood that they had to make the best possible use of them.

This meant, broadly speaking, two things: accept that the media had their uses, and also, that the successful exercise of power required a degree of control.

Tudor courtiers had far greater sanction at their disposal than modern ministers or their spin doctors. Even the most draconian contemporary advocate of press regulation would not argue for torture or mutilation (although the stocks might still find their supporters).

Our contemporary notions of the role of the press in political life tend to be based on the idea that it is a Fourth Estate — an integral part of a functioning democracy. Its role is to question and hold to account those in power — even to the extent of sometimes causing their downfall. The heroic determination, and ultimate success, of the Washington Post reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, are often seen as an inspirational example of this kind of journalism. Watergate gave journalism the “gate” suffix without which no scandal is now complete.

The reality of the relationship between political power and press power is rarely so clear cut. As a former BBC journalist, I tried to imagine the discussions which might have gone on last year at the Corporation when Downing Street refused a one-to-one television debate between David Cameron and Ed Miliband.

BBC guidelines state that “the refusal of an individual or an organisation to make a contribution should not be allowed to act as a veto on the appearance of other contributors holding different views, or on the programme itself”. So the BBC could have “empty chaired” the prime minister, as TV current affairs slang has it. This would have been radical — and extreme. It would have been a moment in TV history. It would also have been very unwise from a BBC which already expected few favours from a future Conservative government.

The case of the culture secretary’s relationship with a sex worker raises anew many eternal issues. Has the story remained largely unreported for editorial reasons, or is it the [latest weaponisation of politically sensitive information?

The question will continue to be discussed. Cable, after declaring war on the Murdoch empire, was eventually withdrawn from the battlefield, having his responsibility for the case taken away.

Alongside the continuity from previous ages of battle between power and the press, there is also change. Recent cases concerning the private lives of celebrities have shown that even the most strictly worded injunctions struggle today to keep scandals entirely out of the public domain. Social media have seen to that. That being the case, what is the real power of press regulation? And who, in the age of the MP’s expenses scandal, and the Panama Papers, really trusts the political establishment?

Both the news media and the political establishment are subject to digital disruption — the latest factor in the battle between press and power.

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