Culture secretary Maria Miller is facing increased calls to resign over her response to an investigation into her expenses claims – with the Daily Telegraph claiming it was "threatened" by her advisors when it first published its story in December 2012.
The Telegraph has published audio from a phone call between Miller's special advisor Joanna Hindley and Telegraph reporter Holly Watt, who was investigating the minister's household expenses.
In the conversation, Hindley mentioned the Leveson inquiry into press standards and said she wanted to "flag up" that the culture secretary was involved in discussions over the future of press regulation.
Former editor Tony Gallagher – who left the Telegraph in January – said the call, "flagging up a connection to Leveson … can hardly be construed as anything other than a threat".
He told the Telegraph: "We had a series of phone calls around the time this story was being prepared for print.
"Maria Miller's special adviser rang one of the reporters concerned – Holly Watt – and said to her that Maria has obviously been having quite a lot of meetings around Leveson, I'm just going to flag up that connection for you to think about and you may wish to talk to people higher up your organisation.
"The special adviser in question, Joanna Hindley, rang a senior executive at the Telegraph to make precisely that point. I then got a third call from [David Cameron's director of communication] Craig Oliver pointing out that she's looking at Leveson and implying the call was badly timed…
"When you get phone calls from a special adviser flagging up a connection to Leveson and saying you should take this up with people higher up the organisation, it can hardly be construed as anything other than a threat."
He added: "Bear in mind this story came to light just after the Leveson inquiry was published, and bear in mind the menacing way the minister, her special advisor and Downing Street reacted to that story, and threatened me, the newspaper and the reporter in question.
"It's actually a clear example of why MPs and politicians in general should have no locus over a free press. Ironically you would know nothing about this story were it not for a free press."
Oliver said: "It is utterly false for Tony Gallagher to suggest he was threatened over Leveson by me in any way.
"My conversation with him was about the inappropriate door-stepping of an elderly man."
Former Conservative chairman Lord Tebbit this weekend described Miller's handling of the expenses scandal as "arrogant" – saying it had revived voter anger over MPs' expenses and undermined the Government's message that "we're all in it together", adding: "The best way out of this is for Mrs Miller to resign."
The Commons Standards Committee last week overruled independent commissioner Kathryn Hudson's recommendation that Miller should repay £45,000 of expenses claimed on a house shared with her parents, and instead told her to hand back £5,800 and say sorry for failing to co-operate fully with the 14-month inquiry.
A redacted transcript (from the Telegraph) follows:
Holly Watt: We’re also looking at her expenses. That is also in the email. Because there is a house that she lives in or lived in in Wimbledon that she declared as her second home from 2005 to 2010, but I understand that her parents lived there throughout that period.
Joanna HIndley: With her.
JH: Have you spoken to Ed Taylor [head of public affairs at Telegraph Media Group]
JH: Oh right, ok. I think he is trying to get hold of Claire [Newell, co-reporter] as well. So I will… When will she be back around?
HW: Fairly shortly, I imagine. But we are working on this story together.
JH: I should just flag up as well, while you’re on it that when she doorstepped him, she got Maria’s father, who’s just had a [redacted] and come out of [redacted]. And Maria is obviously been having quite a lot of editors’ meetings around Leveson at the moment. So I am just going to flag up that connection for you to think about.
HW: I’m not meant to knock on people’s doors…?
JH: Knock on the doors of people when they’ve just come out of [removed] and had [removed]. Yeah. I would suggest that was probably a good thing.
HW: You can’t possibly know that until you’ve knocked on someone’s door.
JH: Well no, Holly, but you could possibly know that had you spoken to people a little higher up your organisation, who do know that. Anyway, we’ll leave it there. But please forward me the email.