UK culture minister Maria Miller called to resign following alleged threat to Telegraph newspaper

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Maria Miller in 2012
Image: Department for Culture, Media and Sport.

Calls for the ouster of British government minister Maria Miller have been increasing following a claim by the Daily Telegraph newspaper that Miller's special adviser used the threat of press regulation to try and prevent publication of a story about Miller's expenses. A poll published today by a number of newspapers shows a majority of the public unhappy with Miller's behaviour and saying she should be removed.

The issue stems initially from a report in the Daily Telegraph regarding Miller's expenses claims to help pay a mortgage on a house in south London that Miller shares with her parents. The newspaper claimed that she had claimed £90,000 to pay the mortgage on the house. Miller's expenses have been the subject of investigation by a parliamentary commissioner and then by the House of Commons Committee on Standards. The commissioner determined she should repay £45,000 of this expense, but the Committee determined she ought to only repay £5,800. Following the decision of the Committee, the Daily Telegraph reported Miller's special adviser Joanna Hindley had said in a telephone call with the newspaper, "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 kind of flag up that connection for you to think about."

The Telegraph alleges that this was intended as a form of intimidation: that Hindley dropped in mention of press regulation and the Leveson Report as a way to attempt to get the newspaper to drop the story. A leader column in the Telegraph stated Hindley's remarks were "an indictment of the influence that press regulation by statute could have over free speech". Therese Coffey, a Conservative MP (Member of Parliament), has defended Hindley's statements to the Telegraph, as specifically referring to the "doorstepping" of Maria Miller's elderly parents, specifically her father who had been returning from hospital. Coffey said of the audio published by the Telegraph: "I heard an adviser to the culture secretary suggesting that it's inappropriate to be doorstepping elderly parents of somebody who has just come out of hospital."

Heather Brooke, a campaigner who has been involved in the release and publication of MPs' expenses and the scandal that followed, said the alleged doorstepping was "a public interest piece of reporting", noting that the journalist from the Telegraph had to visit the property to work out who was living there. Brooke said it was "disingenuous to use this argument of privacy".

Telegraph editor Tony Gallagher also claimed that Craig Oliver, David Cameron's director of communications, also attempted to suppress the story: "When you get the Prime Minister's spokesman making a similar phone call to you a couple of days later, you add all three calls up and you can only conclude that they are trying to harass you and stop you from publishing the story."

Oliver has denied the story. "It is utterly false to suggest that I threatened Tony Gallagher over Leveson in any way. The conversation I had with him was about the inappropriate doorstepping of an old man", he told the BBC.

Miller has the backing of Prime Minister David Cameron: on Friday, Cameron told reporters to "leave it there" on questions of Miller's expenses. Iain Duncan Smith, the work and pensions secretary, suggested Miller could be targeted by a "witch-hunt" due to her role in press regulation following the Leveson inquiry, as well as her job in fronting the government's gay marriage bill.

Duncan Smith told the BBC's Andrew Marr Show: "I am enormously fond of her. She has done a very good job in a very difficult set of circumstances with the Leveson inquiry that has stirred up a lot of media antipathy to her. And also the gay marriage stuff — there are a lot of Conservatives out there who, perhaps, were not necessarily in support of it all and so feel rather bitter about that. I have known her to be a reasonable and honest person."

Labour politicians have responded to the affair with strong criticism of Miller, but no call yet to resign. Angela Eagle, the shadow leader of the House of Commons, said: "The latest revelations and the release of a recording raise further serious questions for Maria Miller and David Cameron. They urgently need to make clear what they knew about these calls and what action they took about them."