One of David Cameron’s most senior aides has been accused of threatening a national newspaper over an investigation it was conducting into the Culture Secretary Maria Miller.
Craig Oliver, the Prime Minister’s Director of Communications, is alleged to have implicitly warned the Daily Telegraph that its probe into Ms Miller’s expenses could have a bearing on the Government’s final response to Lord Justice Leveson’s report on press standards.
Mr Oliver’s intervention followed recorded comments by Ms Miller’s special advisor to a reporter on the paper in which she said she wanted to “flag up the connection” between the investigation and the editors’ meetings Ms Miller had been having “around Leveson”.
Tonight Downing Street angrily denied it had tried to put pressure on the Telegraph not to run the story pointing to Mr Cameron’s stated position that there should not be statutory regulation of the press.
“We don’t accept that threats have been made,” said Mr Cameron’s official spokesman. “The Prime Minister has set out his view (on the Leveson Report) in the House of Commons. That remains his view.”
However Labour demanded to know if Mr Cameron or Ms Miller had been aware of the calls made on their behalf suggesting they could be putting Ms Miller’s private interests ahead of their public responsibilities.
The campaign group Hacked Off, which represents the victims of press intrusion, called for Ms Miller to step aside from talks on the future of press regulation.
On Monday the Daily Telegraph claimed that Mrs Miller had claimed more than £90,000 in expenses for a second home that was used by her parents. She was said to have listed as her “main” home a more modest rented house in her Hampshire constituency.
While the story failed to attract much attention – and was disputed by Ms Miller - the paper subsequently claimed that pressure had been brought to bare upon them to by Downing Street.
It said that when a reporter approached Mrs Miller’s office about the story her special adviser pointed out that the Editor of The Telegraph was involved in meetings with the Prime Minister and the Culture Secretary over implementing the recommendations made by Lord Justice Leveson.
“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 is alleged to have said.
The paper also quoted a conversation between the editor of The Telegraph Tony Gallagher and Mr Oliver in which he is said to have indicated that the article was poorly timed as “she [Maria Miller] is looking at Leveson at the moment.”
However Downing Street said it was simply raising concerns that Telegraph reporters had approached Ms Miller’s elderly father to ask him about the story before approaching her office.
“The Secretary of State had some concerns about the way that the (Telegraph) investigation was conducted and she set those out in a letter to the editor,” said a Downing Street spokesman. “Craig Oliver was simply reflecting those concerns. To suggest we are linking these things is absurd. They are not linked. Craig Oliver does not accept that he linked the two issues.”
But the Labour MP Simon Danczuk said the allegations called the “integrity and professionalism” of Mr Cameron’s aides into question.
“If Craig Oliver threatened the Telegraph without David Cameron’s authority, that looks like an open-and-shut breach of the special advisers' code.
“But if the Prime Minister authorised his special adviser to use the threat of Leveson Report discussions to discourage the publication of an embarrassing story, then that is potentially even more serious. The Ministerial Code is very clear: ministers must not allow any conflict between their public duties and their private interests. Neither ministers nor those working for them should let protecting their own personal reputation take precedence over the public interest.”
Professor Brian Cathcart, Executive Director of Hacked Off, said the incident illustrated why ministers should be kept at arm's length from the regulation of the press.
“It cannot be right that politicians who are subject to the scrutiny of the newspapers and who are constantly vulnerable to public challenge in this way are sitting down with editors and proprietors of those same newspapers to design a press regulation system,” he said.