Lunch with... John Whittingdale MP

Written by Anoosh Chakelian on 22 October 2013 in Culture
The Maldon MP and culture committee chair chews over phone hacking, David Cameron and the “scary” Murdochs with Anoosh Chakelian. Photo by Louise Haywood-Schiefer

Chairman of the culture select committee since 2005, launched to prominence by his probing work during the phone-hacking scandal.

The restaurant

Tate Modern, Level 6 Restaurant

A busy, friendly space hovering over London from the mighty former power station’s top floor. The artsy guests are treated to a dizzying, dazzling view of everything from St Paul’s to the Walkie Talkie across the Thames.

The menu

Starter Parsnip and pear soup, pistachio crumble; mushroom and walnut pâté, fig chutney.

Main Suffolk chicken breast, buttered savoy and chestnut croquette; baked lemon sole, celeriac, broccoli and almond butter.

Dessert Fruit platter with sorbet.

We drank A glass of Grüner Veltliner Federspiel 2011 (Austria) and Moulin-à-Vent 2010 Domaine Richard Rottiers (France); a glass of Jeunes Vignes de Xinomavro 2011 (Greece) and Mount Barker Riesling 2011 (Australia)

We discussed

Royal Charter The newspaper industry’s proposals in my view should be hugely welcomed, firstly because they represented an enormous step forward from the Press Complaints Commission. The differences between the body which has been set up by the press and the body which is required under the parliamentary royal charter – they are significant differences, but they are not so great that, in my view, with a bit of will, they can’t be overcome… We’d come so close to bridging the gap between what parliament is proposing and what the press is proposing that it shouldn’t be impossible to sit round a table and just thrash out those last differences.

But it appears that particularly the Labour Party aren’t willing to concede from the parliamentary version, which is of course the position of Hacked Off, and therefore the most likely outcome at the moment is that you will get a new body which the press set up, but which is not compliant with the requirements of the parliamentary royal charter and therefore doesn’t employ the protections for the press that would be in place if they set up a body that does comply.

Leveson One of the reasons why I was very keen for the select committee should have the opportunity to hear from Leveson is that those who don’t wish to change any of the provisions in the Royal Charter that parliament has approved to some extent rest on Leveson. Their argument is ‘we’ve got to deliver Leveson’.

If Leveson were to say ‘well, in my view, these are absolute non-negotiable elements’… so that’s why I was very keen Leveson should come and express his view about where we had got to. Because Leveson has expressed no view at all. He has not answered a single question on this matter since the publication of his report. One of the powers available to the select committee is to encourage people who don’t want to come and speak to do so…

I’d like him to express a view. Given we are completely stuck in terms of the parliamentary version, the press version, even though they’re not far apart, neither side really moving. I had hoped that Leveson could potentially just unlock the door, because if he were to start giving his view about the merits and demerits of each version, that would lay out the ground for a negotiation to try and reach an agreement. In a sense both sides are competing to claim the mantel of Leveson, so for Leveson to express a view would be very helpful.

He’s the best-placed to decide what is appropriate, what isn’t appropriate.

Phone hacking scandal Yes [I’m pleased it happened under my chairmanship]. What went on was shocking and I think we played a part in exposing it. Funnily enough I went recently to the screening of the new film about Julian Assange, the Fifth Estate, and I was talking afterwards to Alan Rusbridger, and I said to him, and he didn’t disagree, in fact he agreed, I said, “the Guardian gets the credit for basically exposing the phone hacking scandal, but if we hadn’t picked it up, nothing would’ve happened”.

The Guardian would’ve published, no other newspaper would have printed it, and there would be no follow-up. So it would just sit there and nobody would actually ask the questions or probe and we’d never know. We decided to reopen our inquiry on the basis of the info the Guardian had printed, because we believed it suggested that we had been misled.

So we can’t take credit for exposing phone hacking, I think that rests with the Guardian, but certainly I think we gave it a profile which couldn’t be ignored by the rest of the press. Because we started having very high-profile hearings, that sort of pushed it up the political agenda massively.

Scary Murdoch By summoning Murdoch junior and senior, we were going into uncharted territory. The first question we were asked by all the press was “what happens if he refuses to come?” The answer to which was – nobody knew. It had never happened, not for several hundred years had somebody refused to obey a summons. There was lots of talk about cells in the clocktower, and this sort of thing – that was apparently the precedent!

This wasn’t just summoning somebody who might refuse; this was summoning somebody who was seen by many to be one of the most powerful people in the world, so that in itself was quite scary. The other thing which was quite scary actually was the hearing. I don’t know what the figure was, but it went out to probably not far short of one billion people, because it went out live across China, Australia, America, France, you know, basically half the globe watched a select committee of parliament.

In a sense that’s something I’m rather proud of because it elevated the profile of select committees like nothing before. But it was quite scary. Then of course it slightly descended into farce at the end with the great foam pie incident.

Select committee power In my committee, we have been testing boundaries in a number of different areas, in terms of powers available to select committees and what we can look at… The powers and the profile of select committees have hugely increased. The willingness of select committees to get stuck in when a scandal appears. Now it’s taken as the obvious, logical thing, the next step.

We get an incredibly high profile not just on phone hacking, we’ve done the BBC as well, I’ve got the chairman of the trust and the director general coming in and that’s going to be a huge hearing as well… Because we have this power of summons, if there is a scandal, the great thing about a committee is that they can say ‘right I want every person who is involved in this in public, in front of this committee, answering why this has happened and what we’re going to do about it’. And of course the media love that!

Margaret Hodge For as long as I can remember the PAC is the one committee which has always been seen to be very powerful. If you look at previous chairmen of the PAC, they have built reputations on their chairmanship – both Edward Leigh and then David Davis. And Margaret I think does it very well. In a sense, you have the NAO (National Audit Office) who do the work. The PAC is there to pick up an NAO report. The NAO fashions the bullets and the PAC fires them.

Inquisitorial insights If you have a witness who ought to be able to defend the organisation they are in charge of then you ought to give them a hard time. And that would go for Andrew Tyrie beating up the heads of the banks. I think my committee in part, certainly not completely, but in part, contributed to the [BBC] director general’s resignation because he appeared before the committee and did not perform well. I have called as witnesses Gerry McCann, and obviously you are much gentler with firstly people who are not politicians or public figures and people who are likely to become distressed. We’ve had some quite emotional hearings.

Hearings going too far The famous example is of course the David Kelly hearing, where I know those involved did feel terrible about it – nobody was to know he would subsequently kill himself. Obviously you would feel terrible... There have been times when I think that members have gone too far and actually there’s a tendency sometimes for members to play to the gallery and to use emotive language that in my view pushes it, and is not terribly helpful for getting information out of a witness. What we are there to do is to get information from the people we’re questioning, not just to publicly humiliate them. I don’t believe that’s our role. You don’t just sort of abuse them, which has occasionally happened [in my committee]. In my view, calling James Murdoch a mafia boss did not actually take the argument very much further.

Being stung by the press I’ll give you one example. A story which I thought was deeply unfair was when the select committee, which had spent about seven years monitoring preparations for the Olympics, and BT – a top line sponsor of the Games –  asked me to a presentation of what they’d done to make the Games a success. I said ‘yes, I’m sure that would be very interesting’, and they then invited the committee to come on from the presentation to the park and go to the 100m men’s final. It didn’t cost the taxpayer anything; it was a corporate invitation from a company that was wanting to demonstrate to us their commitment. So about half the committee said yes, and the Mail on Sunday, and I shall remember this, carried a front-page splash: ‘Snouts in the Olympic Trough’. I thought that was incredibly unfair!

Thatcher I was Margaret Thatcher’s political secretary, so my whole political formative years were working with her, so I’m a very strong Thatcherite, I’m a Eurosceptic, I’m a small-state tax-cutter.

Culture Department I was shadow secretary of state for a few years. You look around for areas to get involved in. It combines an interest in technology with a passion for music and movies and TV, and also recognition that it’s hugely political and also very exciting. The way in which media is changing so fast, and I could almost see that coming in the ‘90s so I decided to get involved in that area.

Although I have done other jobs in politics, I know where my real interest lies… I would’ve liked to have been in the cabinet and I’d obviously loved to have done that job [culture secretary] but being the select committee chairman has proved so satisfying and has given me opportunities which I’d never dreamt when I took the job on – who was to know we’d get Murdoch and the BBC and the extraordinary things that have happened…

I don’t agree [with MPs calling for abolition of DCMS]. You only have to look at the importance of the industries DCMS covers; the creative industries are hugely important to our economic success. It has responsibility for all of that sector, it’s now also got the responsibility for the telecoms sector – all the development, future, technological advance upon which a lot of our success depends lies in that sector.

It is true that a lot of the day-to-day work is done by other bodies – you’ve got the Arts Council, English Heritage, BFI, Sport England, UK Sport, museums… DCMS itself is quite small now and a lot of it is writing cheques, but what is important is that nonetheless it has a representative sitting around the cabinet table who is going to speak up for those industries. I think to get rid of it would send an incredibly damaging signal, that somehow we thought they didn’t matter as much.

To some extent I share the smaller government instinct, but I do think it would be very counter-productive. I don’t see any serious possibility of that happening… We were quite critical of the education reforms. I’m generally quite supportive of what Michael [Gove] is trying to do but I do think it was a risk that arts are being downgraded because if you say ‘these are the subjects that matter’, then of course the implication is that other subjects don’t.

Reshuffle I’ve no idea, I’ve not worked with Helen [Grant] I don’t know her background in this area but I’m looking forward to it. But I would say that I do think Hugh was an outstanding minister for sport, and I would almost defy you to find anybody to say otherwise – right across the sports world, and indeed all the parties, he is very, very widely respected, and he only achieved that after a lot of work over a long period. So I’m sorry for Helen in a sense because she’s got to start from scratch again.

The EU referendum I want a wholly different relationship with Europe… the ambition which David Cameron has spelt out is one that I strongly support, to get a different agreement. I think it’s going to be very difficult but I hope it can be done. I think it’s in the interest of Europe to keep us inside, and if we can get that new agreement then that’s in our interest too. Therefore it seems to me sensible to have a referendum afterwards. You’ve got to give us a chance to get the new arrangement and then ask the people whether or not they support it…

I’m strongly in support of a referendum, if we can get the kind of new arrangement which David Cameron’s talked about, then I would say I’d want to stay in, if we don’t, I’d probably vote to come out. If it was a choice of the membership under the present terms or coming out, then I’d vote to come out.

The PM I think he’s been very successful in widening the appeal of the Conservative Party, which obviously had to happen if we were to win an election – sometimes he’s paid the price for doing that. He’s not always been terribly popular with the grassroots, hard-core Tories, most of whom I represent – I’m in a very Conservative seat, and sometimes he’s done things which I don’t entirely agree with…

There’s no doubt that part of the reason we achieved the result we did was David Cameron, and certainly I think any speculation about replacing him is utterly daft; nobody in their right mind would seek to do that…

I think there have been occasions where he has misjudged the view of Conservative MPs, you know I think the three very obvious examples, which you can quote immediately, are House of Lords reform, where a very substantial number of Conservative backbenchers didn’t support it – and I don’t think he had necessarily anticipated the strength of opinion about that subject – secondly, gay marriage, where a majority of backbenchers didn’t support and again I don’t think he’d taken account of that, and third, which quite plainly he had not taken account of the strength of feeling was the Syria vote. It is never good for the authority of a prime minister to lose a vote in the House of Commons.

Rebel, rebel I disagreed with him [Cameron] about House of Lords reform, I disagreed with him about gay marriage… I voted against gay marriage because a huge number of my constituents were very, very worked up about it and I just saw no need to upset them in that way. There was never, as far as I’m aware, any need to bring in gay marriage. I was in favour of civil partnerships, but marriage was not an issue until we made it into an issue, and it did cause a huge amount of upset and I thought that was unnecessary and therefore I opposed it.

I’m vice-chairman of the ’22 Committee, so I see Cameron with the officers of the ’22 Committee quite regularly and we tell him these things. I’ve told him I didn’t agree with him about gay marriage, the House of Lords, and about Europe – although now he’s come much closer to the position I wanted us to be in – I’ve been pushing that, as have a number of my colleagues, for a long time.

Perfect for

Everyone from art students and famished tourists to business lunchers.

Not suitable for


The cost Very reasonable.

To book a table at the Tate Modern restaurant, call 020 7887 8888

Tags: Issue 63, John Whittingdale

Share this page


Please login to post a comment or register for a free account.