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.
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.