Boris Johnson’s disinformation minister has refused to distance himself from the Tory leader’s false claims about Sir Keir Starmer and Jimmy Savile.
Chris Philp, minister for technology and the digital economy, was repeatedly challenged during a session of the Digital Culture, Media and Sport Committee to come out against remarks made by the prime minister.
Mr Johnson said on Tuesday he “stands by” false comments he made about Sir Keir Starmer’s involvement in the prosecution of Jimmy Savile in the House of Commons.
The prime minister used parliamentary privilege to accuse the Labour leader of failing to prosecute Savile when he was director of public prosecutions (DPP) as he attempted to deflect criticism about Downing Street parties during lockdown.
The claim has been used in far right conspiracy theories since Sir Kier became Labour leader but has repeatedly been found by fact checking organisation to be baseless.
Minister challenged over claims
Mr Philp was asked during the committee session on Tuesday to distance himself from Mr Johnson’s remarks by SNP MP John Nicolson but repeatedly refused to do so.
Mr Nicolson said: “Minister, you are responsible for online harms.
“We all agree that disinformation is a scourge and I want to ask you about something topical because too often disinformation crosses over from the online world to the offline world.
The Disinformation Minister appeared before the @CommonsDCMS Committee today. Shockingly, he refused to distance himself from Boris Johnson's #JimmySavile lie aimed at Keir Starmer. Have a listen. pic.twitter.com/AkUlscLtLh
— JOHN NICOLSON M.P. (@MrJohnNicolson) February 1, 2022
“Yesterday the prime minister repeated an online trope, that Kier Starmer chose as DPP not to prosecute the prolific paedophile Jimmy Savile.
“This was online disinformation entering the offline world.
“The culture secretary chose to defend the prime minister last night and this morning we had the justice secretary choosing not to disassociate himself from this completely unproved allegation.
“As disinformation minister, will you do so now?”
Mr Philp told the committee he had come to “talk about the Bill rather than to debate contentious matters”.
But Mr Nicolson said he had hoped there would be no need for a debate and Mr Philp “would just say it’s absolutely untrue”.
Remarks branded ‘utterly untrue’
Mr Philp responded: “I’m not going to use this session, which is for the purpose of pre-legislative scrutiny, to look at the bill, to comment on current political controversies that are, I think, separate to the matters we are looking at.”
Mr Nicolson said even though Sir Keir is a political opponent he is happy to go on the record saying the prime minister’s remarks are “utterly untrue”.
He added it is “beneath the dignity of a minister of the Crown to defend this in any way”.
Mr Philp noted he had not commented on the situation but Mr Nicolson insisted: “That in itself is noteworthy”.
What did fact checkers find?
Sir Keir was director of public prosecutions from 2008 to 2013 but is not thought to have been involved in decisions relating to disgraced entertainer Savile.
In 2020, fact checking charity Full Fact looked into the claim that Sir Keir had stopped him being charged in 2009.
It concluded: “The allegations against Savile were dealt with by local police and a reviewing lawyer for the CPS.”
Earlier in the day, Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab claimed Mr Johnson’s discredited remarks were part of the “cut and thrust” of parliamentary proceedings but declined to repeat the allegation.
He said he could not substantiate the claim, adding: “I’m certainly not repeating it, I don’t have the facts.”
Asked about the prime minister’s allegation on Sky News, Sir Keir said Conservative MPs had disgust on their faces as their prime minister was “debasing himself” in the Commons by using a “ridiculous slur peddled by right-wing trolls”.
“They knew that he was going so low with that slur, with that lie – he had been advised not to do it because it’s obviously not true, but he does it because he doesn’t understand what honesty and integrity means,” Sir Keir said.