By Jake Fielder & Kam Sandhu
As pressure mounts on the Culture Secretary to resign over vulnerability to tabloid blackmail concerning his relationship with a sex worker, we investigated the to and fro between Conservatives and Murdoch regarding the BBC since 2009, revealing further motives and a wider context to the Whittingdale story.
An extensive report on Byline last week revealed Culture Secretary John Whittingdale, who is tasked with enforcing press regulation post Leveson and the upcoming BBC Charter Renewal, was engaged in a relationship that could have left him open to tabloid blackmail, after several newspapers pursued the story of Whittingdale’s relationship with a sex worker, before dropping it.
Watch our video on What’s Happening To The BBC: Charter Renewal 2016
Tabloid journalists were quick to offer that it was a non-story. That there was no public interest. Whittingdale was indeed a single man in a relationship with ‘Mistress Kate’, a dominatrix. However, author of the piece, and ex-political correspondent for the Independent John Cusick, was pointing to the power this gave to media groups to lean on the Culture Secretary.
Private Eye’s Iain Hislop had also reported on ‘the story no one wanted to run’, and commented on this week’s HIGNFY:
“We’ve had the hysterical sight this week of lots of tabloid editors saying ‘yeah we’re not interested in this story…Tory MP, prostitute, dominatrix… it’s of no interest to us.’
“We suggested that perhaps the public might like to know why the story was not appearing. And we suggested the reason the story wasn’t appearing was because this was the man in charge of newspapers. He’s in charge of press regulation. He was chair of the Select Committee for Culture and Media and Sport.
And on the defence that the Press were staying away because they had learned their lesson from Leveson:
“Except during the period they had the Whittingdale story, they ran the story about Brooks Newmark, Tory MP you’ve never heard of, Simon Danczuk – every single jot and tiddle of his sex life they ran in full. They ran the Labour peer – his sex life, prostitute, the whole thing except in the case of the man who is charge of regulating the press and beating up the BBC…oh we don’t run that sort of story.”
When the BBC published the Whittingdale story on its own website, it spurred responses from the non-story camps, who were now leading with with it, in the Telegraph, The Sun, and The Daily Mail, but only to say the BBC was pursuing an agenda against the Culture Secretary, in order to weaken him ahead of the BBC Charter Renewal.
Byline media have since tweeted that they received phone calls from other journalists and threats of no future work, ironically demonstrating the leaning powers of media and how quickly they can be deployed;
— Byline (@Byline_Media) April 15, 2016
It was these powers that Michelle Stanistreet, the re-elected General Secretary of the National Union of Journalists, highlighted when calling for Whittingdale’s resignation over the cover up;
“It’s not his sex life, but that he has compromised his position and integrity by allowing his privacy to be shielded by the newspaper owners who have been leaning on him throughout this time, in order that he deliver on press regulation and on the emasculation of the BBC.”
There is also a wider campaign that the Whittingdale story fits into. It is a years long agenda by Murdoch titles against the BBC, in the interests of the media magnate to increase his share of the market and extinguish the national hold of the Public Service Broadcaster in the UK. Rupert Murdoch’s British media interests in 2009 included The Times, The Sun, The News Of The World (before it’s ceremonious closure in light of phone hacking), Sky, 39.1% of BSkyB, and 17.9% of shares in ITV.
With Whittingdale a close friend of the Murdochs, this campaign is ever more relevant.
A revolving door between Murdoch and Conservative camps since 2009, has resumed in earnest a relationship that began in the eighties.
The same year saw a step change in Rupert Murdoch’s campaign – his News international titles, including The Sun, published 515 articles in one year attacking the BBC according to a Fleet Street database highlighted by journalist Nick Davies.
Whittingdale was at this time Chair of the Select Committee, MP for Maldon, and Vice President of Maldon Cricket Club, where he received a £3000 donation from Martin Le Jeune – head of public affairs at Sky.
Martin Le Jeune was also the author of a ‘report’ in March of the same year for the Centre for Policy Studies – a right wing thinktank co-founded by Margaret Thatcher – which lambasted the BBC, and was quoted by articles in the Telegraph, and of course the Sun where coverage maintained aggression citing the BBC was ‘parasitic’ for blowing the licence fee on copycat shows’;
“Too much money is going on cheap and poor copies of commercial programmes, says the Centre for Policy Studies think-tank.”
The report reminds readers twice in its opening pages that the ‘pamphlet solely represents the views of the author’ and not the ‘corporate view of CPS and its directors.’ It was not a research project or the culmination of an independent investigation, rather it read like Le Jeune’s personal thinkpiece with little academic evidence and many anecdotal suggestions.
But Le Jeune’s writing services did not stop there. He wrote also for Conservative Home the following month, praising the Conservatives and once again denigrating the BBC.
Much of this is seen as standard Parliamentary lobbying activity. Le Jeune has done nothing illegal. But if legal and secretive tax havens are where the wealthy hide their hordes, then lobbying is the legal and secretive way they use that money to influence and buy policies and power.
Spinwatch, a public interest watchdog, has campaigned tirelessly for a transparent register of lobbyists. The will of Parliament was demonstrated when this was granted with no fundamental requirement to log ALL lobby interests, rendering the register useless. A year on, Spinwatch reported on 1st April that ‘over a quarter of the 124 lobbying firms that made the effort to register, don’t declare a single client.’
It was around this time at the start of 2009 that David Cameron began heeding the calls against the BBC from Murdoch camps. In March he announced that he would freeze the licence fee were he elected in 2010, and could cut it year on year depending on the changes;
‘I’m a supporter of the BBC. I’m a supporter of the licence fee…I think a frozen licence fee right now is the right thing. We are not talking about deep cuts.’
Years later the fight to retain the BBC from the prospect of cuts, top-slicing and demands which could render it unrecognisable from it’s current state, is very much on.
A Media Reform Coalition report in October 2015 revealed; ‘The main public service TV Channels account for nearly three quarters of all viewing yet Sky is by far the biggest broadcaster. It’s share of revenue is set to increase if the government gets away with proposed cuts to the BBC.’
Cameron’s response in March 2009 would be the start of a public call and answer relationship between the media mogul and the budding new leader of the Conservatives in the wake of an election.
Rupert’s son James Murdoch used the MacTaggart lecture at the Edinburgh TV festival in August of 2009 to launch a scathing attack on the BBC, claiming ‘the corporation is incapable of distinguishing between what is good for it, and what is good for the country,’ adding the broadcaster was ‘throttling’ the market;
‘We seem to have decided to let independence and plurality wither. To let the BBC throttle the news market, and get bigger to compensate.’
James Murdoch also took time to attack regulator Ofcom, who were pursuing a case against the Murdochs concerning the ownership of ITV shares.
Contrary to the fight for ‘plurality’ James Murdoch cited in his speech, the mogul family had bought up 17.9% of shares in ITV to fend off a takeover of the broadcaster by rival Virgin Media, assuring Sky would hold the greatest market share when the BBC was out of the way.
Ofcom argued that the ITV shares should be diminshed, eventually winning the case in 2012, and forcing a sell off of 10.4% of Murdoch’s ITV shares, to reduce ownership to 7.5% – something Rupert Murdoch would call an ‘injustice.’
Still, Cameron caught wind of James Murdoch’s outrage a month before the MacTaggart lecture and announced he would cut Ofcom powers.
Other exchanges between the camps followed in the build up to the election, by which time, endorsement for the Conservatives streamed from Murdoch titles.
- The Murdochs complained that the BBC now had more than half of all radio listeners, and that more of the bandwidth should be given to commercial radio companies (many of whom buy news bulletins from Murdoch’s BSkyB).
- Cameron’s junior media spokesman, Ed Vaizey, then said “There is a good argument for the BBC to be rid of Radio 1 and give the commercial sector the chance to use the frequency”
- Cameron complained about ‘the big boot of the BBC coming thumping into a new market”.
- The Murdochs accused the BBC of trespassing into new markets which had previously belonged to commercial providers (magazines and websites).
- The Murdochs then attacked the BBC trust for its ‘recklessness … total failure … abysmal record’. Opposing the BBC’s expansion into commercial markets.
- Jeremy Hunt announces that a Conservative government would abolish the BBC Trust because it had allowed the BBC to ‘crush media competition’.
This support continued after the 2010 election, but the interests butted heads in the public sphere when the BSkyB takeover bid was thwarted by the phone hacking scandal in 2011.
The forthcoming Leveson inquiry would reveal the intimate exchanges Jeremy Hunt, who held the position of Culture Secretary at the time, had with the Murdoch empire.
Hunt was being lobbied extensively by James Murdoch, and other Murdoch figures, revealed in collusive emails between Hunt’s aide Adam Smith and News Corp Lobbyist Frederic Michel. Sometimes half a dozen confidential messages would go between the camps on any given day.
Further, Hunt had written to Cameron pleading with him to back the BSkyB bid, with the warning; ‘James Murdoch is pretty furious.’ Questions arose of Hunt’s position and willing interference in the matter. He had drafted the email in his and his aide’s personal Gmail rather than formal government accounts. But a month later in January 2011 Cameron put Hunt in charge of the bid.
Texts revealed in the inquiry from Michel to James Murdoch read “Urgent. JH decision … He is minded to accept … and will release around 7.30am to the market. ..He [Jeremy Hun] said we would get there in the end and he shared our objectives.”
Lord Oakeshott, Liberal Democrat, said to Channel 4’s Dispatches ‘I got an increasingly creepy feeling as the lobbying went on on behalf of Mr Murdoch. Once we were in Government they very quickly went got to work to try and build up their networks and build up their conenctions.’
‘Clearly Mr Murdoch was not being treated like any other commercial organisation. Mr Hunt should have resigned some time ago and obviously once his evidence came out at the Leveson Inquiry no self-respecting minister could possibly carry on after that.’
In stark contrast, Business Secretary Vince Cable was publicly stripped from overseeing the bid, following an undercover sting by the Telegraph where Cable stated he was to ‘declare war’ on Murdoch. Though, Cable never interacted with any of those involved in the bid.
And it was Hunt who reported Cable to Ofcom. The Business Secretary was stripped of his position, with Cameron declaring that his comments were ‘totally unacceptable and inappropriate.’ But with Hunt remaining in his position, despite leaving a web of communications confirming Hunt was pursuing Murdoch interests before, during and after the decision, it seems that it is only bias against Murdoch which is punishable under rules of objectivity.
In his book with Martin Hicks ‘Dial M for Murdoch‘ Tom Watson commented “John Whittingdale, the Conservative chairman of the Culture Committee, congratulated Hunt on the ‘meticulous care’ that he had taken in deciding the bid.” A comment which in itself, raises more questions over the suitability of the ‘man in charge of newspapers.’
But the relationship continues, with reports surfacing at the start of this year that Chancellor George Osborne met with Rupert Murdoch twice in June 2015, days before the treasury imposed controversial new funding terms which imposed the £700m costs of licences for the over 75s on the BBC.