Maria Miller: Incompetent or out for revenge?
In Maria Miller, our increasingly inept Culture secretary, we have a prime example of a minister hopelessly out of her depth
They say one of the most glaring flaws in our system of government is its toleration of ministers who have absolutely no expertise in their brief. It has always seemed odd to me that we could – quite realistically – have a Chancellor without so much as a degree in economics, an Education secretary who has never picked up a history book, or a Defence secretary with not the first clue in the workings of the armed forces.
In Maria Miller, our increasingly inept Culture secretary, we have a prime example of a minister hopelessly out of her depth.
Miller’s opprobrious press regulation legislation has been vilified almost universally. Kowtowing to lobbying groups funded by billionaire celebrities has seen almost every publication refuse to sign up. Index on Censorship say of her new rules for blogs: “the overall outcome will be chilling in its effect on free speech”. That the battered and bruised Crime and Courts Bill can survive the amendments thrust upon it makes a mockery of our lawmakers.
This week Miller’s department released a frankly laughable flowchart with the aim of helping bloggers to determine whether they would be classified as a ‘relevant publisher’, or be exempt for regulation. Putting it kindly, it betrayed her complete and utter lack of understanding of those she is legislating over. Let me explain.
The key question boiled down to this: is your publication a blog? For a site such as Guido Fawkes, which defines itself as a blog, the editor then has to merely have fewer than ten employees or turn over less than £2 million to be exempt. But for a site such as The Commentator, however, which defines itself as a website rather than a blog, the next question becomes: is publishing news the main focus of your business? For most, the answer will be yes, and you are classed as a fully regulated relevant publisher (for The Commentator, the answer is no).
You see the problem. Whether or not a website is classed as a relevant publisher is effectively decided entirely by the completely arbitrary self-definition of a ‘blog’. Call yourself a blog and you are likely to escape Miller’s clumsy clutches; don’t, and it appears you could be in her sights.
At best, this is woefully incompetent lawmaking. But is there something more sinister underlying Miller's hatchet job assault on press freedoms, both offline and online? What motivates someone who quite obviously has no great expertise in her field to attack it with such vigour?
Last year Miller was exposed as having claimed £90,000 worth of second home expenses for a house in which her parents lived, directly contravening parliamentary rules. Days of damaging headlines followed as she was placed under investigation. The Telegraph claimed it was threatened by Craig Oliver, David Cameron's Alan Partridge-esque adviser, against running the story.
It seems to me concerning that a minister with every reason to have a chip on her shoulder about the press – to have a vested interest in silencing them even – is in control of its regulation. Every decision Miller makes on press regulation should be judged with her expenses indiscretions in mind. Could any politician, given the power to wreak revenge on those who had exposed his or her wrongdoing, resist the temptation to do so? In a nutshell, this is why giving the state a say in the regulation of the press is such a slippery slope to stand atop.
Maria Miller is out of her depth, certainly; incompetent even. She also has motive. There is only one thing more dangerous than a genius with bad intentions: when those bad intentions are harboured by a fool.
Alex Wickham is The Commentator's UK Political Editor and a reporter at the Guido Fawkes website. He is a contributor to their column in The Sun newspaper. He tweets at @WikiGuido
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