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Maria Miller’s adviser reminds us why politicians can’t be trusted with press regulation

12 December 2012

9:22 AM

12 December 2012

9:22 AM

An email from an Asian friend last night pointed me to a piece in the Telegraph  saying: ‘This is the kind of thing they do in Singapore! I’m amazed it’s happening in Britain.’ She was referring to Maria Miller, the Culture Secretary, whose adviser told the Daily Telegraph to be careful about exposing her expenses because the minister now has power over press regulation. The story is here: a classic example of the ‘chilling effect’.

As soon as you give these politicians a hint of power over the press, they will abuse it. As Maria Miller’s case has shown, they will abuse it even before they get power. They will abuse it even while they decide whether to give themselves power of statutory regulation. The reporter from the Daily Telegraph dealt with Joanna Hindley, special adviser to the Secretary of State, and was told:-

“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 then said the Telegraph reporter should discuss the issue with ‘people a little higher up your organisation’. The implication being that: don’t you know she’s a Politburo member, comrade? Someone could have a quiet word in the ear of your boss. There could be repercussions.

Worse, the aide then called up the Telegraph’s head of public affairs – i.e., the guy handling Leveson – rather than anyone in the editorial process. This very phone call meant the adviser was drawing a link between reporting of Ms Miller and her deliberations on press freedom.

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I sat in that editors’ meeting, and Ms Miller didn’t strike me as the type who would even think of using that kind of threat herself. But ministers will always have those around them people who do.

Hindley is obviously an amateur. The professionals, when trying to intimidate the press, don’t even mention Leveson – they just have a quiet word in the ear of someone senior. I’ve written before about a Labour MP who asked me to discipline a Spectator writer for being rude about him on Twitter, and a Tory minister who asked me to take down a blog because it was rude about him. These phone calls just didn’t come two years ago.

I haven’t named either, as that would make it personal – they are just random examples of how the MPs would behave towards the press if they thought they had (or could plausibly acquire) any control over the press. This is the reason why The Spectator has said we will ignore any state regulation of the press, refuse to pay any fines that may arise from not being part of a state-regulated system and then we will face whatever consequences the MPs propose.

We should thank Joanna Hindley: she has given a very clear reminder about why politicians cannot be trusted with the power to decide what ought to happen to press regulation. As David Davis so rightly said, it’d be like putting the foxes in charge of the hen house.

PS Alex Salmond is trying to give himself this power in Scotland, and the chilling effect has set in already with an appalling case involving my predecessor at The Scotsman. But more of that later.

PPS The Guardian’s Roy Greenslade has suggested that Miller now recuses herself from the process – if she’s involved with a fight with the press over her parliamentary expenses then she ought not to sit in judgment over press liberty.


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Show comments
  • God

    I am sure Maria Miller will be suitably punished at some point for her sins.

  • Paul J

    Looks more like the Telegraph decided to have a pop at some mid-level politico because they knew she was unsympathetic to the Barclay twins Re Leveson to me.

  • Davidh

    Oh I’m so shocked – NOT.

    What is a newspaper’s “public affairs” office for, if not bartering editorial favours for commercial gain?

    It was Murdoch’s “public affairs” guy that was swapping positive coverage for Alex Salmond in return for lobbying on the Sky deal. Leveson gave us the emails very specifically discussing that. Now if the press and Leveson all close ranks and conveniently forget that issue and focus instead on the rather easier to deal with phone hacking and privacy concerns, then they can expect to all be tarred with the same brush.

    As somebody above very rightly said – “that’s why we don’t buy newspapers any more”.

  • MrVeryAngry

    It’s not just press regulation that politicians (and their bureaucratic satraps) can’t be trusted with. It’s all regulation that they can’t be trusted with.

  • mikewaller

    We quite rightly trust neither the Press not the Politicians in this context. There is an option that steers clear of both. Have the body which performs the quality assurance function in respect of the Press Council’s replacement report into the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council. It may not be a perfect solution but it is defiantly better that anything else on the table.

  • http://twitter.com/ukgoldbug Gold Bug

    Politicians are politicians because they want power over other people. They use it to enrich themselves and their friends. I wouldn’t give them the power to decide what soap to put in the Westminster loos. Any power corrupts and if you doubt that look at any government any time in the last 4000 years. Restrict them not the press.

  • FrenchNewsonlin

    Absolutely right Mr Nelson. Hindley of course should be fired without further ado and the media should close ranks even more tightly against the Leveson agenda, everyone’s freedom of speech is now in serious jeopardy.

    • Davidh

      Sorry, but you’ve got this muddled.

      The media are actually closing ranks WITH Leveson to focus on the phone hacking and privacy issues raised by the enquiry. These issues can and will be dealt with by much huffing and puffing and some very complex arrangement whereby the press are regulated but not regulated under regulations that are statutory but not statutory by a body that is fully independent from the press but appointed by people who are appointed by the press and everything will carry on as before. The fix is in already.

      What is conveniently forgotten is the very issue that is coming up here – the newpapers trading editorial favours for commercial gain in cahoots with politicians. Leveson gave us the emails from Murdoch’s “public affairs” guy specifically linking positive coverage for Alex Salmond in return for lobbying on the Sky deal. And do we think the Telegraph doesn’t do this as well when it suits them? Isn’t that the function of the “public affairs” office? As Hindley well knew but was naive enough to address directly. This issue was within the scope of the Leveson enquiry but is now brushed under the carpet, safe in the knowledge that nobody has a memory that lasts much longer than 2 seconds. Goldfish.

      Shame on all the press. It’s a filthy business and Leveson was a waste of time that produced only one thing – more press coverage. Useful for whom???

      • FrenchNewsonlin

        There is plenty of existing law to deal with the hacking and other issues you raise, its just needs to be implemented. The Spectator has already made clear that in its case there will be no co-operation with Leveson in any shape or form and there are plenty of others in complete agreement with that stance, whatever Fleet Street editors may now be up to in their efforts to repel boarders. The deeply shady groups hovering around the Leveson inquiry represent a very dark age for democracy and freedom of speech. Surely it is time to forget your prejudices about the”filthy” media and stand up for the fundamental rights and freedoms threatened by insidious Stasi German replicas.

  • David Lindsay

    Pull the other one. When have they ever not done this sort of thing? And when has your lot not done exactly as they told you in this sort of case 99 times out of 100, if as few as that? But for the next few weeks, you have an axe to grind. You are not fooling anyone.

  • http://www.facebook.com/jim.hollett.9 Jim Hollett

    One of the greatest achievements of our society was that most people believed we lived in a free country, that illusion has now been stripped away. This is actually progress.

  • biggestaspidistra

    You should have named them Fraser, that’s why we’re talking about the Telegraph. Actually I thought you had named one as Ed Balls but perhaps that was pre-Leveson.

  • wrinkledweasel

    Can’t resist a parting shot for Alex Salmond? or an equally predictable puff for The Scotsman, which rivals only the BBC in the level of political bias, but struggles to achieve the lows of anti-SNP guff that the Spectator manages on an almost daily basis, along with Fraser’s little helpers, Alex Massie and Haggis McDonut. (Fraser, Alex and Hamish, let it be said are all former employees of The Scotsman and HD has the double bubble privilege of being part of the BBC)

    The Scotsman itself is moribund. The budget has been cut, journalist numbers slashed and pertinently, they no longer use in-house lawyers to check articles for libel. Its circulation has dwindled, the price has risen and the paper itself has gotten thinner at the same time. Morale among its myrmidons is at an all time low and its online presence is lamentable. All The Scotsman has left is a dwindling readership of fingers-in-their-ears unionists. The one proud name of The Scotsman is now in thrall to a management that is bent on cutting and running.

    As for the sentiments, I invite Fraser to read Salmond’s statement on this and tell us which part of it alludes to a grab for personal power, or, is in any sense “chilling”.

    http://www.heraldscotland.com/politics/political-news/why-scotland-has-to-act-on-the-press.19561961

    I just wish that there might be a scintilla of balance in the independence debate. That’s all.

    • Whyshouldihavetoregister

      If one believes, rightly, that there is no case for independence, why should one pretend that there is? You be the tosser that does that; we’ll continue to be right.

      • Wessex Man

        Is Civil War going to break out in Scotland?

        • wobble

          would anyone notice ?

  • itdoesntaddup

    The odd thing is that Miller has said absolutely nothing about the BBC, yet it’s her main departmental responsibility.

  • MirthaTidville

    Strange how we all thought Broon and his mob were a bit useless………..Almost makes one nostalgic

    • Bluesman

      Almost.

  • John_Page

    Ms Miller didn’t strike me as the type who would even think of using
    that kind of threat herself. But ministers will always have those around
    them people who do.

    As Josh said in The West Wing:

    The President doesn’t bear grudges. He pays me to do that for him.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Iain-Hill/100000917822376 Iain Hill

    You have convinced me. Will the adviser be disciplined for this outrageous behaviour?

  • LB

    Hindley is obviously an amateur. The professionals, when trying to intimidate the press, don’t even mention Leveson – they just have a quiet word in the ear of someone senior. I’ve written before about a Labour MP who asked me to discipline a Spectator writer for being rude about him on Twitter, and a Tory minister who asked me to take down a blog because it was rude about him. These phone calls just didn’t come two years ago.

    =============

    Name them

    • telemachus

      Yes
      Name them

  • TomTom

    We know how Mandelson operated in keeping news out of the press and how Campbell operated, and that is why we don’t buy newspapers.

    • telemachus

      But Mandeson and Campbell had a just cause to defend

      • MrVeryAngry

        Hahahahahahahahhahahah Excellent joke.

        • The Crunge

          Actually, you might like to ask Telemachus if the parents of the men and women who died in Iraq, having been sent their at least partly on the evidence of a dossier authored by Mr Campbell and which proved to be a tissue of lies, are happy that their children died because they had “a just cause to defend”.

          • telemachus

            I think Alastair might consider that actionable

  • http://twitter.com/LouMcCudden Louise McCudden

    Great point! I think the extent to which people have lost trust in the corporate media has led some people to forget how little we can trust politicians.That’s quite a feat! I guess some of them – the politicians – are trying to cash in on that now, while they can paint themselves, bizarrely, as the good guys. Even though most of the problems are related to politicians being close to the media, and police (the arm of the state) corruption. More government involvement doesn’t seem like it’s going to help that.

  • swatantra

    Maria is having a particularly difficult time at the moment. First with Leveson, second with Gay Weddings, and third … well whats the next whammy to hit her to make it a triple?
    Do you get the feeling that Owen Patterson and Theressa Villiers are in the wrong jobs? Both are loo,king pretty uncomforable and clueless in their present roles.
    And David Davies is showing his true colours.
    But Editors should never sucumb to any pressure from politicians but should go ahead and publish if its in the public interest.

    • swatantra

      … of course, its the expenses thing.; its the covering up that usually does them in.

    • James Strong

      Editors should publish whatever they want. The ‘public interest’ shouldn’t limit them, partly because we can’t know what the public interest is if we haven’t got the facts. Nobody should be allowed to put a restrictive definition on the public interst in advance.

      • swatantra

        If that were the case then we’ed get writs flying left right and centre.
        Editors wouldn’t have a leg to stand on; they’d have no defence in Law.
        Maria has to come clean and tell us if her parents were employed as house keepers or house sitters or oddjob persons.

  • Earlshill

    is she related to Myra by any chance?

  • Salisbury

    Is it something they put in special advisers’ tea at DCMS that obliterates their capacity to tell right from wrong, or do they just save time by recruiting bozos to start off with?

    That said, it is clear that the Telegraph is going after Miller deliberately at the time when she is fronting for the Government on same-sex marriage, so let’s not kid ourselves that the press don’t have agendas too. It’s clever of Theresa May, whose Department is responsible for the same sex marriage proposals, to step back and let Miller cop all the incoming. There’s a woman thinking about her future bid for the party leadership

    • ScaryBiscuits

      Is it something they put in special advisers’ tea at DCMS that obliterates their capacity to tell right from wrong, or do they just save time by recruiting bozos to start off with? LOL

      I’m not sure why poltical advisers even exist. Ostensibly they are to add a political dimension to the decisions of a government department but isn’t that what ministers are there for? Sack the lot of them.

      • salisbury

        Many years ago I was talking to a civil servant about the fact that the then chief whip had just appointed a special adviser. As he put it: “if your chief whip needs a political adviser, you need a new chief whip”. I don’t want to alarm ScaryBiscuits too much, but his view on the matter is identical to the one held by Michael Heseltine which is why, other than the odd low-level bag-carrier, Hezza never appointed a special adviser.

        • ScaryBiscuits

          I couldn’t agree more. SpAds exist merely for the aggrandisement of vain politicians.

          • David Lindsay

            Oh, it can be an awful lot worse than that. People effectively working for companies with cosy relationships to Ministers, not least in the poor, persecuted media. In Liam Fox’s case an American intelligence officer who was refused security clearance by the MoD, but who nevertheless continued to be paid by the British taxpayer as his SpAd .

  • http://twitter.com/VisceralRage Slicer

    Joanna Hindley and Maria Miller – fascist femmes.

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