A British minister has admitted he had been in a relationship with a sex worker but said he did not know her occupation at the time.
Culture secretary John Whittingdale said he had broken off the relationship, which occurred before he became a minister, when he found out the woman had tried to sell her story to a newspaper.
Whittingdale admitted the affair following reports on online news outlets, and it is likely to raise questions about whether his previous role as press regulator was compromised by knowing newspapers had information about his private life.
British opposition politicians said Whittingdale should have given up authority over press regulation after he learnt that several newspapers knew about the relationship but kept quiet.
“This is an old story which was a bit embarrassing at the time. 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,” he said in a statement on BBC’s Newsnight.
“Between August 2013 and February 2014, I had a relationship with someone who I first met through Match.com. She was a similar age and lived close to me,” he said.
“At no time did she give me any indication of her real occupation and I only discovered this when I was made aware that someone was trying to sell a story about me to tabloid newspapers. As soon as I discovered, I ended the relationship.”
Although not a minister at the time, Whittingdale was chairman of the Commons Culture, Media and Sport Committee and famously grilled media boss Rupert Murdoch over the phone-hacking scandal at the now-defunct News of the World.
Labour shadow cabinet minister Chris Bryant, who was shadow culture secretary until last year, said: “It seems the press were quite deliberately holding a sword of Damocles over John Whittingdale.”
None of Britain’s scandal-hungry newspapers ran the story of Whittingdale’s sex life, although several investigated it.
Critics of the government say newspapers may have used knowledge of the embarrassing relationship to exert influence over Whittingdale, who resisted calls for tighter regulation of the press in the wake of the phone-hacking scandal.
Whittingdale denied his decisions on press regulation were in any way influenced by the fact that several newspapers had information about his relationship.
The row comes at a bad time for the government. The ruling Conservatives are split over EU membership ahead of a referendum on the issue in June, and Prime Minister David Cameron is under pressure for having held a stake in an offshore fund.
Cameron’s office said: “John Whittingdale is a single man and is entitled to a private life. The PM has full confidence in him.”
Press regulation has been a highly political issue in Britain since the huge scandal over illegal phone-hacking by tabloid reporters in 2011 lifted the lid on close ties between politicians, police and certain sections of the media.
A lengthy public inquiry ordered by Cameron made recommendations on how to improve press regulation, many of which have not been implemented.
The newspapers that had Whittingdale’s story included the Sun and the Mail on Sunday, which have published many stories about the private lives of politicians in the past. They said they had decided not to publish this one because there was no public interest.