Press form campaigners have come under attack for their stance on the exposure of Culture Secretary John Whittingdale's relationship with a woman who worked as a dominatrix.
The story of Whittingdale's six-month romance with the woman was first reported by the website Byline last week which also published an investigation by journalist James Cusick revealing that The Sun, Sunday People, Mail on Sunday and Independent all investigated the story but declined to run it.
Whittingdale issued his first public statement about the matter on Monday after the BBC decided to run the story on Newsnight.
Hacked Off founder Brian Cathcart wrote a piece for Press Gazette last Friday explaining why he thought the Whittingdale story was in the public interest and why the press would have felt an "obligation" to run it.
Labour shadow cabinet minister Chris Bryant said publishers were "quite deliberately holding a sword of Damocles over John Whittingdale" by not running the story.
And shadow culture secretary Maria Eagle called for Whittingdale to withdraw from decisions on press regulation, saying that doing so would “allay any concerns about perceptions of any undue influence”.
Director of the Scottish Newspaper Society John McLellan said in a comment piece: "Even the sanctimonious Hacked Off pressure group must see the irony of trying to hound a single man out of his job for the crime of having a relationship with a woman.
"Or indeed attacking the press for not running a story about the girlfriend of future Culture Secretary John Whittingdale turning out to be an escort girl with a sideline as a dominatrix."
He added: "They style themselves as the protectors of innocent people, yet now see an opportunity to get rid of someone who has done nothing wrong except always be a supporter of a free press, as they continue their campaign for the full implementation of the Leveson recommendations."
A source close to Whittingdale told The Sun: “John has done nothing wrong.
“He believes this is a clear attempt by Chris Bryant and Hacked Off to stitch him up for their own political reasons because they don’t think he has done enough to muzzle the press, and they wanted someone else in his job who would. Luckily, it has failed.”
The Sun said in a leader column: "The enemies of press freedom have been exposed as worthless hypocrites.
"Upon hearing that newspapers had declined to publish a relationship between two consenting adults, did Hacked Off and their Labour stooges celebrate a great win for privacy?
"No, because this story featured Tory MP John Whittingdale.
"So shameless celebs like John Cleese, two-faced MPs Chris Bryant, Jess Phillips and Maria Eagle, and the permanently-smug Evan Harris, wailed and moaned that it wasn’t being printed."
The BBC has also come under attack for airing the story (after it had already been covered by Press Gazette and Private Eye).
The Sun said: "Into this farce dived the BBC, who have a well-known vendetta against the Culture Secretary for his sensible efforts to trim the licence fee.
"The Beeb needs to explain why it allowed Newsnight to run a story with so little public interest, and why it then tried to justify its flimsy report by using anonymous MPs to smear Whittingdale.
"The true colours of all involved are plain to see.
"Self-righteous stars who ploughed millions into a campaign to curtail the press are only interested in privacy for their celeb chums.
"The BBC, which has gladly given Hacked Off publicity in their attempts to regulate newspapers, thinks it is acceptable to launch personal attacks on its detractors.
"And Labour MPs preach fairness but their principles fly out the window when there’s a chance to nail a Tory minister.
"Their shameful behaviour should not be forgotten."
An unnamed cabinet minister told The Telegraph: "The way the BBC has marched into a story that should be an entirely private matter and is hardly in the public interest suggest that they have got an agenda in attacking John. His reputation is being smeared."
Speaking on Channel 4 News yesterday Hacked Off director Evan Harris said: “It is not about whether those three newspapers ought to or ought not to have published that story.
“Those are the Mail on Sunday, The People and The Sun. There may or may not have been public interest justifications… generally we would say that those newspapers would be right not to publish that story on its own.
“But the fact is that week in, week out they do publish those stories.
“And The Independent found that the reason they didn’t was not due to a new-found interest in ethics, but it was because they thought they could influence his position.
“And his position has changed.”
Harris added: “The Prime Minister said that we will go ahead with Leveson part two… and John Whittingdale said it will take place.
“The Dowler family were promised it will take place. Now the line is it might take place.”
Picture: From the Hacked Off website.