Story of minister and dominatrix sparks UK debate over media

LONDON (AP) — Have you heard the one about the British politician and the dominatrix? Probably not until now — and critics of the government and the press say that is a problem.

Opposition politicians called Wednesday for a Cabinet minister to give up authority over press regulation after he acknowledged that he had a relationship with a sex worker several years ago — and that several newspapers knew about it but kept quiet.

Culture Secretary John Whittingdale says he had a relationship in 2013-14 with a woman he met online and later learned was a sex worker. He says he ended the liaison when he learned someone was trying to sell the story to a tabloid newspaper.

No laws were broken, and the government is standing by Whittingdale, saying he is entitled to a private life.

“This is an old story which was a bit embarrassing at the time,” Whittingdale said in a statement. “The events occurred long before I took up my present position and it has never had any influence on the decisions I have made as culture secretary.”

None of Britain’s scandal-hungry newspapers ran the story of Whittingdale’s sex life at the time, although several investigated it. The story resurfaced this week online and in the satirical newspaper Private Eye, which questioned why no newspaper had thought it newsworthy.

Critics of the government say newspapers may have used knowledge of the embarrassing relationship to exert influence over Whittingdale, who is under pressure to introduce tighter regulation of the press in the wake of the tabloid phone-hacking scandal.

Labour Party lawmaker Chris Bryant said it looked as if “the press were quite deliberately holding a sword of Damocles over John Whittingdale.” Labour culture spokeswoman Maria Eagle said Whittingdale “must now recuse himself from any decision-making” over press regulation, “to allay any concerns about perceptions of any undue influence.”

Whittingdale became culture secretary in 2015, after the relationship ended. But at the time of the affair he was chairman of Parliament’s Culture, Media and Sport Committee, which investigated press ethics after revelations of tabloid wrongdoing, including eavesdropping on the mobile phone voicemails of celebrities and people in the public eye.

Some media-watchers have found it hard to believe Britain’s tabloids would pass up a story involving sex and politics, two of their favorite topics. But Bob Satchwell, executive director of the Society of Editors, said he did not believe newspaper editors had colluded to suppress the story.

Satchwell said that in the wake of the hacking scandal, which has seen newspapers sued for invasion of privacy, “papers have become extremely careful about stories involving anyone in public life.”

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