Maria Miller Leveson threat raises fears of politicians interfering in press regulation

Worrying news from Buckingham Palace Road this morning: the Telegraph is reporting that Culture Secretary Maria Miller’s special adviser Joanna Hindley warned its reporters of Miller’s connection to the Leveson report before the newspaper published details of her expenses, notably that Miller’s parents lived in her taxpayer-funded second home.

The paper took the rare step of choosing to disclose details of the conversation in light of concerns over “the potential dangers of politicians being given a role in overseeing the regulation of the press.”

The key passage from their story:

When a reporter approached Mrs Miller’s office last Thursday, her special adviser, Joanna 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.

“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,” said Miss Hindley.

Miss Hindley also said the reporter should discuss the issue with “people a little higher up your organisation”.

In an email statement, a DCMS spokesperson said:

Mrs Miller’s special adviser raised concerns with a journalist about the nature of an approach to Mrs Miller’s elderly father. Her advisor noted that Mrs Miller was in regular contact with the paper’s editor and would raise her concerns directly with him, which Mrs Miller did subsequently.

However, this is a separate issue to on-going discussions about press regulation. Mrs Miller has made the Government’s position on this clear.

This “flagging up” is worrying, but it’s not the first instance of those in power feeling that they already have right to tell reporters what to print. Remember the Spectator’s Fraser Nelson’s revelation last month, pre-Leveson?

In the last few weeks, I have had an MP and a government minister call asking me to (respectively) discipline a Spectator writer who had annoyed him on Twitter and take down a blog that was ‘over-the-top’.

Meanwhile, Evan Harris of the Hacked Off campaign, which pushes for tougher regulation of the press, has apparently suggested Miller should “recuse herself” from Leveson issues.

Those of us concerned about a post-Leveson environment in which emboldened MPs are able to intimidate the press have been told we’re overreacting. But today’s report proves our point: it is precisely the sort of thing that could prevent journalists from doing their jobs and endangers press freedom and the role of the fourth estate in holding politicians to account. And it does little favours to the argument that the state should have a role in regulating our papers.

Marta Cooper is an editorial researcher at Index. Follow her on Twitter: @martaruco