Will Maria Miller be stripped of her Leveson role?

Culture Secretary's special adviser warned Telegraph reporter of her boss's involvement in press regulation.

Like her predecessor as Culture Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, Maria Miller is under fire this morning for the actions of one of her special advisers. Today's Telegraph reveals that Joanna Hindley highlighted her boss's role in press regulation after the paper told Miller's office it was planning to run a story on her expenses.

"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," Hindley told the Telegraph's reporter.

The threat was almost certainly an empty one and there is no suggestion that Hindley acted with Miller's blessing. But it does demonstrate how greater regulation of the press could make it easier (indeed, is making it easier) for politicians to intimidate troublesome hacks. The Telegraph took the unusual step of publishing the details of private conversations in view of the "widespread concern about the potential dangers of politicians being given a role in overseeing the regulation of the press".

Hindley is also said to have told the reporter to discuss the issue with "people a little higher up your organisation" before contacting the Telegraph’s head of public affairs to raise concerns about the story. Miller has been accused of abusing the expenses system by claiming £90,000 for a second home where her parents lived.

The culture department has issued a robust response, stating that "Her [Miller's] adviser noted Mrs Miller was in regular contact with the paper’s editor and would raise her concerns directly with him. However, this is a separate issue to ongoing discussions about press regulation. Mrs Miller has made the Government’s position on this clear."

But it is notable that some are already calling for Miller to be stripped of her responsibility for press regulation. Former Lib Dem MP Evan Harris, an associate director of the pro-regulation campaign group Hacked Off, has said Miller must "recuse herself" from Leveson matters. If David Cameron wants to prove his commitment to press freedom in practice as well as in theory, it is an option he may encourage Miller to take.

Maria Miller, Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

DebateTech
Show Hide image

Politicians: it's no longer OK to know nothing about technology

It’s bad enough to joke about not being "techy"; it's worse to back a piece of legislation from a position of ignorance. 

Earlier this week, facing down a 600-strong battalion of London’s tech sector at a mayoral hustings in Stratford, Zac Goldsmith opened his five minute pitch with his characteristic charm. “I’m not very techy!” he exclaimed. “I understand coding about as well as Swahili!”

Pointless jibe at a foreign language aside, this was an ill-chosen way to begin his address - especially considering that the rest of his speech showed he was reasonably well-briefed on the problems facing the sector, and the solutions (including improving broadband speeds and devolving skills budgets) which could help.

But the offhand reference to his own ignorance, and the implication that it would be seen as attractive by this particular audience, implies that Goldsmith, and other politicians like him, haven’t moved on since the 90s. The comment seemed designed to say: “Oh, I don't know about that - I'll leave it to the geeks like you!"

This is bad enough from a mayoral hopeful.  But on the same day, the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament filed its report on the Draft Investigatory Powers Bill, the legislation drafted by the Home Office which will define how and how far the government and secret services can pry into our digital communications. Throughout, there's the sense that the ISC doesn't think the department behind the bill had a firm grasp on the issues at hand. Words like "inconsistent" and "lacking in clarity" pop up again and again. In one section, the authors note:

"While the issues under consideration are undoubtedly complex, we are nevertheless concerned that thus far the Government has missed the opportunity to provide the clarity and assurance which is badly needed."

The report joins criticism from other directions, including those raised by Internet Service Providers last year, that the bill's writers didn't appear to know much about digital communications at all, much less the issues surrounding encryption of personal messages.

One good example: the bill calls for the collection of "internet connection records", the digital equivalent of phone call records, which show the domains visited by internet users but not their content. But it turns out these records don't exist in this form: the bill actually invented both the phrase and the concept. As one provider commented at the time, anyone in favour of their collection "do not understand how the Internet works". 

Politicians have a long and colourful history of taking on topics - even ministerial posts - in fields they know little to nothing about. This, in itself, is a problem. But politicians themselves are often the people extolling importance of technology, especially to the British economy - which makes their own lack of knowledge particularly grating. No politician would feel comfortable admitting a lack of knowledge, on, say, economics. I can’t imagine Goldsmith guffawing "Oh, the deficit?  That's all Greek to me!"  over dinner with Cameron. 

The mayoral candidates on stage at the DebateTech hustings this week were eager to agree that tech is London’s fastest growing industry, but could do little more than bleat the words “tech hub” with fear in their eyes that someone might ask them what exactly that meant. (A notable exception was Green candidate Sian Berry, who has actually worked for a tech start-up.) It was telling that all were particularly keen on improving internet speeds -  probably because this is something they do have day-to-day engagement with. Just don't ask them how to go about doing it.

The existence of organisations like Tech London Advocates, the industry group which co-organised the hustings, is important, and can go some way towards educating the future mayor on the issues the industry faces. But the technology and information sectors have been responsible for 30 per cent of job growth in the capital since 2009 - we can't afford to have a mayor who blanches at the mention of code. 

If we’re to believe the politicians themselves, with all their talk of coding camps and skills incubators and teaching the elderly to email, we need a political sphere where boasting that you're not "techy" isn’t cool or funny - it’s just kind of embarrassing. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.