Culture Secretary John Whittingdale, who spoke to CUCA this weekNumber 10

At a time when the Cambridge University Conservative Association (CUCA) is caught in the throes of a Brexit campaign, who better to welcome than hard-line Eurosceptic Tory, John Whittingdale?

The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport’s visit on Friday evening was made all the more topical in light of a recent series of scandals that have tested the privacy policies of the media industry he is in charge of regulating.

However, that the minister has had a relationship with a dominatrix sex worker, is an openly declared fan of torture porn or that he attended a lap-dancing club as part of an unofficial “fact-finding mission” seemed of little consequence at the talk he gave to CUCA at Caius. In the sex-positive, post-Leveson world such minor scandals are unlikely to bring down a cabinet minister.

In fact, out of the ten or so people to ask questions on Friday evening, I was the only woman, and the only one to even bring up the recent allegations.  At this intimate gathering of boys in suits, it seemed to provoke hilarity rather than any serious line of questioning, with a commenter on the Facebook event joking that they weren’t sure CUCA could provide the kind of “entertainment” Whittingdale was accustomed to.

In the course of the talk, the Culture Secretary did make passing reference to “lurid stories” – “some of which are true.”

Whittingdale is also caught up in more serious speculation surrounding the media’s discovery of details about his private life – which date back to 2008 – which may have been suppressed in order to influence his attitude to press regulations while he was Chair of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee from 2005 to 2015, and leading its public inquiry into libel and privacy matters in the wake of the News of the World phone-hacking scandal.

For a Minister of Culture charged with renewing the BBC’s Charter, Whittingdale conveyed an extraordinary aversion to the institution at Friday’s talk, and was met with huge guffaws of laughter when he warned “if we don’t renew it, it may be that the BBC will cease to exist, which is occasionally a tempting prospect.” 

“It will sometimes drive me insane,” he confessed.

Just this week Whittingdale has spoken out in favour of plans to privatise Channel 4 and to restrict the BBC’s ability to show popular programmes at the same time as ITV. He explained that within the BBC “there is a case for having some content commission done by someone other than the BBC,” particularly with regards to children’s programmes.

Although the content of the BBC’s new charter is still “a closely guarded secret”, Whittingdale confirmed rumours he was likely to do away with the BBC Trust, handing its function of regulating complaints over to Ofcom – “in future it will no longer be a decision for the BBC,” he said.

Whittingdale’s appointment to the post of Culture Minister straight after the General Election was described by some Tories as a “declaration of war” on the BBC, whose coverage had been seen by some as less than favourable to the Conservative Party. 

On Friday Evening, the minister was pushed by the audience to talk about bias in the BBC and just about every other media organisation, at one point describing Twitter as “overwhelmingly left-wing.”

In relation to this topic, one of the audience members would later rather worryingly complain that messages that attendees had sent one another discussing immigration had been blocked by Facebook for being “unappealing to the government of Germany.”

In Whittingdale’s view, the BBC itself is not explicitly “pro-Labour”, but certainly sits on the “centre-left” of the political spectrum and “has a view of the world where it finds it difficult to take seriously people who have a different view of the world.”

Two examples seemed to strike particularly close to home – “the BBC has always regarded people who want to leave Europe as vaguely mad” and “it has generally been in favour of people who like spending public money rather than those who want to lower taxes."

The minister neatly summed up his conception of the BBC as “essentially a market intervention of around four billion pounds by government”.

Whittingdale, who served as Margaret Thatcher’s political and personal secretary, came across as a Conservative hardliner on almost every issue put before him, unafraid to use strong language about Labour politicians such as Sadiq Khan, whom he called “quite dangerous.”

He also commented on “the extraordinary outburst from Ken Livingstone,” which, to his mind “proved, if there were ever any doubt, that he is dangerously mad."

Despite admitting that “the EU referendum is dividing the party,” he seemed remarkably complacent about the upcoming elections, which he thought “most people are unaware of or don’t really care about.” He went on to opine that “nobody has really sought to question the legitimacy of the Conservative government, because it won a majority.”