Torygraph and Tories at war: how did it come to this?
Number Ten denies the Culture Secretary's part in implementing Leveson was used to threaten paper
HOW on earth did The Daily Telegraph, still regarded as the house journal of the Conservative party, come to be at war with Downing Street? This is how bad things have got between Number Ten and the Torygraph – if we can still call it that...
Downing Street has denied that David Cameron's spokesman Craig Oliver, and Joanna Hindley, a special adviser to the Culture Secretary Maria Miller, used the minister's role in enacting the Leveson proposals as a veiled threat to dissuade the Telegraph from running a story critical of Miller's use of parliamentary expenses.
Tensions began to escalate last Thursday when a reporter rang the Culture Secretary's office seeking comment on the results of an investigation into Miller's claim of more than £90,000 in expenses for a second home in south-west London, which she had described as her parents' home for "nearly two decades".
The Telegraph says the claims "would appear to be at odds with parliamentary rules" after the former Labour minister Tony McNulty was reprimanded for allowing his parents to live in his taxpayer-subsidised second home.
In a phone conversation that day, Hindley told a Telegraph reporter investigating the expenses story that she wanted to "flag up" Miller's central role in negotiating the implementation of the Leveson report. "Maria has obviously been having quite a lot of editors' meetings around Leveson at the moment," Hindley reportedly said. "So I am just going to kind of flag up that connection for you to think about."
Hindley then telephoned the head of public affairs at Telegraph Media Group who has no role in editorial decisions at the newspaper.
The following day, Craig Oliver contacted the paper's editor, Tony Gallagher (pictured), apparently indicating that any article about Miller's expenses might be poorly timed as "she [Miller] is looking at Leveson at the moment".
The Daily Telegraph published the Miller expenses story on Tuesday this week. As The Mole reported yesterday, this led some in government to suggest there was a link between the timing of the story and Miller's announcement about the proposed legalisation of same-sex marriage, a move the paper strongly opposes. The paper denies this motive, saying Miller was contacted before the government had decided to make the announcement.
Yesterday, the Telegraph published extracts of last week's conversation between its reporter and Hindley on its website. That prompted Craig Oliver to deny that Joanna Hindley had tried to exert improper influence on the paper, saying: "My understanding is that she was raising legitimate concerns about the way in which the investigation has been handled, which is perfectly reasonable."
Asked why Miller's involvement in Leveson had been raised, the spokesman said: "She [Hindley] made clear that Maria Miller was in contact with the editor and would be raising those concerns directly and it is my understanding a letter was sent."
Downing Street also refuted claims yesterday that Oliver had tried to use Miller's role in the Leveson negotiations to intimidate the Telegraph. The Guardian reports an unnamed government source saying Oliver called Gallagher because Miller's elderly father had been upset after being approached at his home by a Telegraph reporter. At that stage, the newspaper had reportedly not approached Miller or her office about the allegations regarding her expenses.
The stand-off has prompted the media commentator Roy Greenslade to say Miller should step back from – or, strong contender for word of the year, "recuse" herself from - any further talks on press regulation. "I think Miller's aides – and Miller – have questions to answer," said Greenslade. "The mention of Leveson, and the call to the Telegraph's head of public affairs, were sinister moves that, on the face of it, amounted to pressure to prevent publication." ·