Downing Street forced to defend spin doctor Craig Oliver over Telegraph 'threat' claims

Downing Street was forced to defend its top spin doctor today after he raised Leveson press reforms in a telephone call to the editor of a national newspaper about an unfavourable story it was planning to run.

No 10 insisted that Craig Oliver was highlighting concerns about the way the Daily Telegraph carried out its investigation into the expense claims of Culture Secretary Maria Miller rather than attempting to threaten the newspaper.

The director of communications reportedly told editor Tony Gallagher "she (Maria Miller) is looking at Leveson at the moment" during the call last Friday.

The Prime Minister's spokesman said: "The Secretary of State had some concerns about the way that investigation was conducted. She set those out in a letter to the editor. Craig Oliver was simply reflecting those concerns."

It comes after the newspaper revealed that Miller's special adviser Joanna Hindley said she wanted to "flag up" the Cabinet Minister's connection to press regulation during discussions about the expenses story.

At the regular Westminster briefing, the spokesman insisted neither adviser was suggesting the direction press regulation would take would be influenced by what stories newspapers choose to run now.

"I don't accept that threats are being made," he said.

He insisted the story about Mrs Miller's family and discussions about media policy were separate.

"There is no connection between these things," he told reporters.

Asked why the issues were brought up together, he said: "I think the point was being made that she had been spending some time in dealing with those issues in recent days.

"But what we were doing was raising some concerns about the investigation on that particular story."

Campaigners in favour of press reform said the claims were "astonishing" and called for Miller to be "recused" from her role implementing Leveson-influenced changes.

Evan Harris, associate director of Hacked Off, said: "This Maria Miller story is astonishing."

Brian Cathcart, executive director of the organisation, said the story showed why ministers "must be kept at arm's length from the regulation of the press".

He said: "We do not want to see political influence in press regulation and this story highlights just that risk."

The parliamentary sleaze watchdog was urged to investigate Mrs Miller's expenses claims yesterday after the Daily Telegraph report.

Labour MP John Mann complained to John Lyon, Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, after it emerged that Miller had allowed her parents to live at a property on which she claimed more than £90,000 in second home allowances during the last parliament.

Her expenses claims were detailed in the Daily Telegraph, which said she claimed £90,718 - almost the maximum permitted - between 2005 and 2009 towards mortgage payments, bills and other costs.

Miller's parents, John and June Lewis, had apparently been living there since selling their home in Wales in 1996.

According to the newspaper, Hindley told its reporter: "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."

Chris Blackhurst, editor of The Independent, told a discussion on the Leveson inquiry in London yesterday: "We don't need statute. You only have to look at the front page of today's Daily Telegraph to realise what happens when politicians do get involved."

A Department for Culture, Media and Sport spokeswoman said: "Mrs Miller's special adviser raised concerns with a journalist about the nature of an approach to Mrs Miller's elderly father.

"Her adviser noted that Mrs Miller was in contact with the paper's editor and would raise her concerns directly with him, which Mrs Miller did subsequently.

"However, this is a separate issue to ongoing discussions about press regulation. Mrs Miller has made the Government's position on this clear."

Labour MP Simon Danczuk said: "These are serious allegations about two special advisers which call their integrity and professionalism 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.

"And the same applies to Maria Miller and her special adviser, Joanna Hindley - if these allegations are true then one of them has broken the rules.

"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."

 

Today in a leader column the Telegraph said: “We are not unfamiliar with attempts being made by governments of various stripes to influence publication decisions or even to shut down perfectly legitimate journalistic endeavour. But it is especially troubling when they are linked, however casually, to the threat of legislation to underpin a new independent regulatory body for newspapers.

"It would be hard to find a clearer illustration of why the state must be kept well away from these decisions.”

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