How do you solve a problem like Maria Miller?
Attempts to influence the media by the head of what was known as the ‘ministry of fun’ are no laughing matter.
Upon being made the first secretary of state for the Department of National Heritage back in 1992, David Mellor jokingly dubbed the new department the ‘ministry of fun’. So lightly was the department viewed by the public, that the title stuck and Mellor became known as the ‘minister of fun’.
Fast forward 20 years and the Department of National Heritage has morphed into the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS). And that’s not the only change. The current secretary of state for culture and media and sport, Maria Miller, is attempting to use the one-time ministry of fun to meddle in the business of independent journalism in a distinctly unfunny way.
During this year’s Wimbledon tennis championships, Miller was apparently incensed by a remark made by BBC Radio 5 Live commentator John Inverdale, who said that new women’s champion Marion Bartoli was ‘never going to be a looker’, a fact which, according to Inverdale, meant she had to be ‘scrappy and fight’ when she played tennis.
Inverdale received several hundred complaints from listeners for his tactless comments. The BBC responded accordingly, forcing him to apologise on air and send a written apology to Bartoli herself. After this display of contrition, the BBC considered the matter to be dealt with.
But Inverdale’s apologies clearly didn’t satisfy Miller. In a leaked letter to BBC director general Tony Hall, Miller decided to weigh in to Inverdalegate. She pushed for ‘further action’ and wanted updates on the ‘positive steps that the BBC could take in future to ensure that the perception and commentary on female athletes, and women’s sport generally, are as positive and inclusive as possible’. She very explicitly made this request ‘as the secretary of state for culture, media and sport and minister for women and equalities’, using official headed paper. She even copied in the chair of the BBC Trust, the governing body of the BBC, just for good measure.
Miller’s intentions sound merely right-on – ‘it is vital that young women and girls in this country feel motivated to take part in and watch coverage of sport’. But there is something else, far more serious going on here, too. A government minister is making an active attempt to use her official role to intervene in the way in which independent media outlets do their job. In this instance, she is not only calling for the head of a journalist who said something she dislikes, she’s also attempting to dictate the BBC’s approach to certain stories.
To its credit, the BBC said that it still considered the matter closed, and the BBC Trust agreed. Yet the BBC director general was quick to pen a polite response to Miller addressing her concerns, making it clear he thought Inverdale’s comments were ‘unacceptable’, and that ‘an incident of this nature must never happen again’. Hall also decided this was the time to highlight the BBC’s track record of positive coverage of women in sport, and its equality and diversity policies.
Miller may have failed to get Inverdale the sack, but, as the letter from Hall showed, she certainly bolstered her department’s belief that it could hold the media to account. The message was clear to all media outlets: the DCMS is watching.
This is not the first time Miller’s office has taken a blasé approach to interfering in independent journalism. In December last year, the Telegraph reported that Miller’s special adviser had used Miller’s role in the Leveson inquiry to warn a reporter off investigating a story about Miller’s use of her taxpayer-funded second home.
Of course, as has been widely reported, Miller is not attempting to censure the press from any position of strength. Government ministers have distanced themselves from her comments and Miller, if not her entire ‘ministry of fun’, is believed to be facing the chop – or, at best, marginalisation – in a planned Cabinet reshuffle later in the year.
The sooner Miller departs high office, the better. The attempt by government ministers to interfere with an independent media should be of great concern to anyone who believes in a free and open democracy. Any state official who tries to hold the press to account should themselves be held to account. It’s time to take away the keys from Miller’s funhouse.
Patrick Hayes is a columnist for spiked.