Maria Miller's attack on BBC independence should be resisted

The Culture Secretary's decision to challenge the BBC to take "further action" against tennis commentator John Inverdale is an abuse of power.

Maria Miller's decision to write to the BBC asking what "further action" it plans to take against John Inverdale over his comments about Wimbledon women's champion Marion Bartoli ("never going to be a looker") has won the Culture Secretary rare praise from liberals, but it's not an act they should be applauding. 

No one should defend Inverdale's casual misogyny (and few have) but it is for the corporation, not government ministers, to decide how it disciplines its staff. The principle of BBC independence is too important to be sacrificed on a whim. Inverdale has, as Miller concedes, already apologised "both on-air, and directly in writing to Ms Bartoli" but she still views it as fit to call for his head (without quite summoning the chutzpah to say so).

On his LBC phone-in show this morning, Nick Clegg wisely declined to endorse her criticism and BBC director general Tony Hall has rightly signalled in his response that he regards the matter as closed. Miller's decision to dredge up a two-week-old row likely has more to do with her desire to avoid being shuffled out of the cabinet than any sincere concern for women's rights. It's also not the first time she's taken aim at the principle of a free media. When the Telegraph reported that she claimed £90,000 for a second home where her parents lived, one of Miller's advisers responded in the manner of a Soviet censor by reminding the paper of "the minister's role in implementing the Leveson report". 

In seeking to save her job, Miller has only succeeded in again demonstrating why she is unfit to hold it. 

Culture Secretary leaves Number 10 Downing Street on December 3, 2012. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn prompts Tory outrage as he blames Grenfell Tower fire on austerity

To Conservative cries of "shame on you!", the Labour leader warned that "we all pay a price in public safety" for spending cuts.

A fortnight after the Grenfell Tower fire erupted, the tragedy continues to cast a shadow over British politics. Rather than probing Theresa May on the DUP deal, Jeremy Corbyn asked a series of forensic questions on the incident, in which at least 79 people are confirmed to have died.

In the first PMQs of the new parliament, May revealed that the number of buildings that had failed fire safety tests had risen to 120 (a 100 per cent failure rate) and that the cladding used on Grenfell Tower was "non-compliant" with building regulations (Corbyn had asked whether it was "legal").

After several factual questions, the Labour leader rose to his political argument. To cries of "shame on you!" from Tory MPs, he warned that local authority cuts of 40 per cent meant "we all pay a price in public safety". Corbyn added: “What the tragedy of Grenfell Tower has exposed is the disastrous effects of austerity. The disregard for working-class communities, the terrible consequences of deregulation and cutting corners." Corbyn noted that 11,000 firefighters had been cut and that the public sector pay cap (which Labour has tabled a Queen's Speech amendment against) was hindering recruitment. "This disaster must be a wake-up call," he concluded.

But May, who fared better than many expected, had a ready retort. "The cladding of tower blocks did not start under this government, it did not start under the previous coalition governments, the cladding of tower blocks began under the Blair government," she said. “In 2005 it was a Labour government that introduced the regulatory reform fire safety order which changed the requirements to inspect a building on fire safety from the local fire authority to a 'responsible person'." In this regard, however, Corbyn's lack of frontbench experience is a virtue – no action by the last Labour government can be pinned on him. 

Whether or not the Conservatives accept the link between Grenfell and austerity, their reluctance to defend continued cuts shows an awareness of how politically vulnerable they have become (No10 has announced that the public sector pay cap is under review).

Though Tory MP Philip Davies accused May of having an "aversion" to policies "that might be popular with the public" (he demanded the abolition of the 0.7 per cent foreign aid target), there was little dissent from the backbenches – reflecting the new consensus that the Prime Minister is safe (in the absence of an attractive alternative).

And May, whose jokes sometimes fall painfully flat, was able to accuse Corbyn of saying "one thing to the many and another thing to the few" in reference to his alleged Trident comments to Glastonbury festival founder Michael Eavis. But the Labour leader, no longer looking fearfully over his shoulder, displayed his increased authority today. Though the Conservatives may jeer him, the lingering fear in Tory minds is that they and the country are on divergent paths. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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