current affairs

Analysis: Questions for the press from Downing Street

It is being reported that Downing Street has engaged in conversations with regard to two incidents in media within the past few days.

The first incident concerns an interview the Chancellor George Osborne gave to Radio 4’s Today programme. According to a report from The Guardian, after Osborne’s interview with presenter Evan Davis, the Director of Communications for Number 10 Craig Oliver texted several BBC News executives regarding the interview, saying that Davis had declined to allow Osborne to properly respond to answers to the question of the government’s response to the deficit, and if it was fair for the government to say the deficit had been falling. The interview came after Osborne delivered the Autumn Statement.

The Guardian report adds that as Davis tried to ask the question surrounding £3.5 billion of fourth generation mobile licence sale receipts, Osborne said he had been responding and said the Labour Party was arguing that but for one item the deficit would have increased. “Mr. Osborne, everyone was surprised,” Davis said in response.

After a related question, in which Osborne said he would give a similar response, Davis attempted to move the interview on, saying to not waste time giving a non-answer. “I’m sorry,” Osborne said in reply. “You can’t ask these questions and then before you’ve even allowed me to answer.” Oliver, in his conversation with BBC News executives, argued that Davis’ withdrawal of the questions because of the first half of the sentence offered in answering was not to the liking of the presenter, but added that robust questioning of politicians is legitimate.

A BBC News executive, the report adds, said that the interview could have been handled better. A BBC News spokesman told Kettle that no action had been taken against Davis. “The programme has reviewed the interview with the Chancellor, as we do with all our big interviews, however there is no question of any kind of reprimand,” the spokesman said. Requests for comment to Number 10 were not returned.

Davis tweeted later saying that there had been no action taken. “There is some confusion around just now, but just to clarify: I have not been told off for the way I interviewed the chancellor today,” Davis said according to The Guardian.

Yet, the most dominant issue was the relations between Downing Street and the Daily Telegraph. According to a December 12 report in the paper, Oliver phoned Telegraph editor Tony Gallagher December 7, saying that the Culture Secretary Maria Miller had been looking into the proposals of the Leveson Inquiry, and that an article detailing her expenses (which revealed a claim of more than £90,000 for a second home used by Miller’s parents, which is against rules in Parliament) would be bad timing.

An adviser to the Culture Secretary, Joanna Hindley, telephoned a reporter 24 hours before these remarks were made saying that the role of the Minister in the Leveson report should be flagged up, the report adds. “Maria has obviously been having quite a lot of editors’ meetings around Leveson at the moment,” Hindley reportedly told the Telegraph reporter according to a report from The Guardian. “So I am just going to kind of flag up that connection for you to think about.”

Hindley then phoned the head of public affairs at the Telegraph Media Group, who does not work directly on editorial decisions of the Telegraph’s publications, the Telegraph report adds. Oliver added that a complaint to the Press Complaints Commission against the Telegraph was being considered, the report adds. It is not clear at this writing if a complaint is being sought.

According to a report from the BBC, Downing Street has denied that a threat was made.

Miller is now facing calls to recuse herself of the investigation of the inquiry, led by the former Liberal Democrat MP Dr. Evan Harris, who is on the board of the Hacked Off campaign for a free and accountable press, according to the Guardian report.

Brian Cathcart, the campaign’s executive director, said in a statement on its web site that this story signified the reason why political influence should not be in press regulation. “This story illustrates exactly why ministers must be kept at arm’s length from the regulation of the press,” Cathcart said. “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.”

Yet, according to the Telegraph report, Prime Minister David Cameron stands by Miller and Hindley did not violate the code of activities of special advisers. “My understanding is that she was raising legitimate concerns about the way in which the investigation has been handled, which is perfectly reasonable for her to do that,” said the Prime Minister’s spokesman according to the Telegraph. “Both the special adviser and the secretary of state were raising concerns about the way that investigation was conducted.”

A spokeswoman for the Telegraph declined to comment. A request to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport seeking comment was not returned.

While the outcome of this incident remains unclear, and while questions remain for Miller, this may raise questions as to the implementation of Leveson’s reports. For the moment, the resolution of these scenarios are up in the air, as is the future of the British press.


What do you think? Should Maria Miller recuse herself? What is the future of the British press and British media in light of this? Have your say in the comments section below, on Facebook and on Twitter.