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John McGurk

Maria Miller, the cabinet minister who is supposed to sort out our horrible newspapers, may well turn out to be their best friend.

The fact that she is in charge of implementing the verdict of the Leveson Inquiry into the standards and ethics of newspapers, but is now exposed as an expenses cheat is a gift for those fighting to protect the freedom of the press.

This is not a defence of everything that newspapers get up to. There are things that have gone on in the name of supposed public interest, freedom of speech or fair comment which cannot be defended and most of us now know what these are.

But Ms Miller is a disgraceful example of why governments should never be allowed to regulate or dictate to the media.

The notion that a politician, accused by a newspaper of swindling the taxpayer and then ordered to pay back money, should continue to legislate against the press is the equivalent of an astonishing own goal by the government scored in the last minute.

The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport is engulfed in a storm over her claim for £90,718 of mortgage payments on a house in Wimbledon between 2005 and 2009 in which her parents lived along with her children.

This was designated as her “second home” because her “first home” was a cottage rented cheaply from a Conservative party donor in her constituency of Basingstoke.

If this sounds similar to the MPs' expenses scandal, when ponds and duck houses exposed political corruption on an unprecedented scale and rocked Parliament to its very foundations, it is only part of the financial embarrassment surrounding Ms Miller.

Under the new parliamentary expenses rules, she should have paid capital gains tax on the Wimbledon property when she sold it for a profit of more than £1 million earlier this year.Instead, it is claimed that she “flipped” the property and re-designated it as her “first home” to avoid the 28% tax bill.

Some MPs who were found to have committed similar offences were forced to resign while the really bad expenses cheats went to jail.

But Ms Miller is still in her job, having been instructed to pay back just £5800 despite the fact that the parliamentary standards commissioner who investigated the matter recommended she should return some £44,000.

The figure was reduced by a committee of MPs who said it later came to light that her mortgage had increased by some £100,000 over the period of her claims.

Ms Miller attempted to fight off the standards watchdog from the start and was deemed to have breached the MPs' code of conduct by failing to fully co-operate.

In fact, she was determined to resist the investigation. Instead of answering direct questions, she prevaricated and muddied the waters which resulted in making the inquiry more difficult.

In one email to her fellow MPs she wrote,“As should by now be obvious, a decision to uphold the complaint would be irrational, perverse and unreasonable...that is to say it would be a decision which no reasonable decision-maker could properly reach”

When she was eventually made to apologise to the House of Commons, she did so in a statement which lasted only 32 seconds. Her insincerity has appalled most observers.

But perhaps the most scandalous aspect of this whole affair is the revelation that her spin doctors attempted to scare off The Daily Telegraph in its efforts to report the matter in the first place.

Jo Hindley, her special adviser, told the reporter involved, “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 then told the reporter to “discuss it with people a little higher up your organisation.”

Later, Craig Oliver, the director of communications in Downing Street, phoned the then Telegraph editor who, armed with a tape of the first conversation, interpreted the calls as a threat; since described by Oliver as entirely false.

There can be very few fair-minded electors who would disagree that Maria Miller should be tossed out of Parliament. Yet she sails on with the support of David Cameron as if there had never been an MPs' expenses scandal.

What this all means is that just like the newspapers which promised but failed to clean up their act after the gross intrusions of the 1990's, the politicians who promised to sort out their expenses scandal have also fallen way short.

The wheezes are still going on while any decision by the parliamentary standards commissioner can be overturned by MPs with a sympathetic ear.

Politicians who accuse newspapers of marking their own homework are still doing exactly the same. While Downing Street continues to support Maria Miller, the Conservative peer Norman Tebbit is the latest is say that she should resign, although he is days behind the dreaded Nigel Farage who was cleverly the first to call for her head.

When Tory grandees start to agree with the leader of UKIP, the game is up for David Cameron.

The newspapers will not give up the fight to get rid of her.

Maria Miller will not survive the storm.And thanks to her arrogance and greed, the attempt to legislate against the press will now become far more difficult.


John McGurk is a former editor of The Scotsman and Scotland on Sunday and was managing editor of The Daily Telegraph. 

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