Monday 16 July 2018

UK culture secretary 'should step back' over prostitute relationship

John Whittingdale admitted relationship with prostitute (PA)
John Whittingdale admitted relationship with prostitute (PA)

Neil Midgley

UK Culture Secretary John Whittingdale is under pressure to withdraw from decisions about press regulation after disclosing he had a relationship with a prostitute.

The Conservative, who is single, said he had been unaware of the woman's occupation and had broken off the relationship when he discovered someone was trying to sell the story to the press.

Downing Street said Mr Whittingdale is "a single man who is entitled to a private life" and Prime Minister David Cameron "has full confidence in him".

But the MP faced calls to recuse himself from decisions about press regulation amid claims the revelations had left him vulnerable.

Anthony Lester QC is to table a private members' bill which, if passed into law, would prohibit many of the ideas that Mr Whittingdale favours for the BBC's new Royal Charter - the constitutional basis for the BBC and guarantees its independence - which runs until December 31, 2016.

Mr Whittingdale has indicated that the new charter will allow the Government to appoint the majority of members of the BBC's board. However, Mr Lester's proposals would enshrine the BBC's independence from government in law.

"There needs to be a fence around the Charter to protect the BBC against undue interference," said Lester. "My bill will say that the BBC shall continue to be independent about the content of its output, and the governance and management of its affairs."

Mr Lester's legislative proposals would also protect the BBC's funding, and would require the creation of a new, independent regulator for the BBC - instead of passing regulation from the failed BBC Trust to Ofcom, as Mr Whittingdale is currently contemplating.


Mr Lester, a Liberal Democrat, is hoping either that the government will support his Bill, or that the Department for Culture, Media and Sport will instead incorporate similar provisions in one of the government bills in the Queen's Speech in May.

However, his proposals are likely instead to put him on a collision course with Mr Whittingdale. The granting of the BBC's Royal Charter currently falls under the gueen's royal prerogative, the ancient right of kings that stretches back to the Middle Ages.

What that means in practice is that the government of the day writes the charter every 10 years with little parliamentary scrutiny, and is able in that document to exercise significant influence over the way the BBC is regulated and governed.

Mr Whittingdale has given no indication that he intends to give up these powers, but Mr Lester's proposals are likely to garner significant cross-party support in the Lords, which could pit the chamber against the government later this year.

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