The Daily Telegraph last night released the audio of Maria Miller’s special adviser implying very clearly that its reporter should lay off investigating the Culture Secretary’s expenses because she was deciding about the future of a free press. Here’s the key quote:

‘I should just flag up as well, while you’re on it that when she doorstepped him, she got Maria’s father, who’s just had a [removed] and come out of [removed]. And Maria has obviously been having quite a lot of editors’ meetings around Leveson at the moment. So I am just going to flag up that connection for you to think about.’

We knew about the comments at the time — the Telegraph is not a newspaper easily bullied — but to hear it now is still shocking. And a reminder of the grave threat posed to press freedom by the politicians’ charter, cooked up just over a year ago.

Now and again, people ask if it would really be so bad having a Royal Charter whose proposals are almost identical to those being drawn up by IPSO, the new press regulator. The menace does not lie in the practical implications, but having a system where any minister has the press in his or her remit. Right now, the relationship between press and politician is comparable to that between a dog and a lamppost. That’s the healthy way. As soon as that changes, you get dark threats muttered to journalist — the type caught on tape by the Telegraph. Not direct threats but things, you know, to ‘think about’.

At the time, I had similar phone calls – a Labour MP asked me to take action against a Spectator journalist who was annoying him. A Tory minister asked me to take down a blog that annoyed him. These phone calls just didn’t come earlier — the politicians were limbering up for an era where they held the whip hand. It was a bit galling earlier on this week to see the Guardian’s Alan Rusbridger on a stage talking about press freedom when he was so silent when it mattered most – over the threat which Leveson posed to the free press. It was as if Rusbridger didn’t mind regulation that hurt his enemies in the Murdoch stable more than it would hurt the Guardian.

I’d have like to have read thundering Guardian editorials saying that politicians had no business discussing what to do with the press, and deploring the threat made to the Daily Telegraph. I’d like to see it get upset about tabloid journalists arrested, not just its own ones.

In the Times report today John Mann, the Labour MP whose complaint led to the investigation of Miller, is quoted saying:

‘People reading these letters will see that the Culture Secretary was trying to use political influence to affect the outcome of this investigation and, for this reason, is no longer fit to have responsibility to ensure a free press’

I’d go further and say it shows why no politician should have ‘responsibility for’ (ie, control over) a free press.

UPDATE: For those who haven’t heard the audio, here it is — from Radio 4 Today’s discussion this morning with Spectator assistant editor, Isabel Hardman:

Tags: Leveson, Maria miller