With one bombshell story , the Telegraph has exposed the deep fears many of us feel about the risks of political oversight of the press as moves to implement the recommendations of the Leveson report power ahead.
The paper reported that a special adviser to Culture Secretary Maria Miller warned the paper to "consider her role in the Leveson Inquiry" before publishing a story about Miller's housing expenses. Miller is now facing calls to recuse herself from the Leveson discussions, although David Cameron is standing by her.
Telegraph Editor Tony Gallagher said the warning from adviser Joanna Hindley during a private conversation, amounted to “not-so-subtle menaces”.
When a reporter approached Miller’s office last Thursday on the expenses story, Hindley pointed out that the editor of The Telegraph was involved in meetings with the Prime Minister and the Culture Secretary over implementing the recommendations made by Lord Justice Leveson.
Hindley is said to have told told the reporter : “Maria has obviously been having quite a lot of editors’ meetings around Leveson at the moment. So I am just going to kind of flag up that connection for you to think about.”
She also told the reporter she should discuss the issue with “people a little higher up your organisation”.
Hindley then “immediately contacted The Telegraph’s head of public affairs to raise concerns about the story”.
Hindley told the reporter she wanted to “flag up” the Cabinet minister’s connection to press regulation after reporters established that Mrs Miller’s parents lived in her taxpayer-funded second home.
The Telegraph said that Miller and her advisers had initially refused to answer questions on the expenses story.
The paper said it decided to disclose details of the conversations amid widespread concern about the potential dangers of politicians being given a role in overseeing the regulation of the press.
In two tweets about the incident, editor Tony Gallagher wrote "Maria Miller's expenses: the @Telegraph reveals tmrw how her advisors warned us to consider her Leveson role before publishing her claims . . . So we considered her Leveson role, published the story - and tomorrow we reveal the not-so-subtle menaces of her special adviser."
Professor Brian Cathcart, executive director of Hacked Off, said in a statement that the story illustrates exactly why ministers must be kept at arm's length from the regulation of the press.
"It cannot be right that politicians who are subject to the scrutiny of the newspapers and who are constantly vulnerable to public challenge in this way are sitting down with editors and proprietors of those same newspapers to design a press regulation system.
"We do not want to see political influence in press regulation and this story highlights just that risk."
Prime minister David Cameron appears to be backing Miller. His official spokesman said: "My understanding is that Joanna Hindley was raising legitimate concerns about the way in which the investigation had been handled. It was perfectly reasonable for her to do that.
"She made clear Maria Miller was in contact with the editor and would be raising those concerns directly and I understand that a letter was sent."
He added: "It is reasonable for someone in the government to raise these kinds of concerns about the way a newspaper is conducting an investigation."
The Drum says: David Cameron's judgment in dealing with the press is yet again up again for scrutiny. Surely he can see that the remarks to the Telegraph were indeed an unacceptable veiled threat.
Maria Miller should recuse herself from the Leveson discussions. Or if it emerges that she sanctioned Hindley's tactics , she should resign.
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