Why I’m not raising my pitch-fork in jubilant celebration at Maria Miller’s resignation

by Stephen Tall on April 9, 2014

Maria Miller has resigned as the Coalition’s culture secretary. The reaction of most people will probably be the same as Labour MP John Mann, whose complaint triggered her downfall: “about time”.

Not me.

The Independent’s John Rentoul summarised it very well in his blog-post yesterday, In Partial Defence of Maria Miller:

I think Miller probably made an honest mistake in failing to adjust her claims when her mortgage payments went down, which she compounded by her truculence when she was investigated by Kathryn Hudson, the Parliamentary Commissioner. In a sane world, a contrite apology, a repayment and an additional fine (for obstruction and to acknowledge that the error in her favour was discovered only as the result of journalists’ enquiries) would have been sufficient.

But we don’t live in a sane world. Maria Miller’s failure to fake a sincere apology, compounded by Number 10’s inept handling of the media, made her resignation sadly inevitable. They handled this whole thing badly – from the half-minute apology to her decision to out-source to her aide Mary Macleod her defence.

But the British press in full-on, mob-handed, sanctimonious blood-lust mode is a pretty revolting sight. Based on the newspapers’ coverage, most of the public will have assumed Maria Miller set out deliberately to defraud the British taxpayer for personal gain, that she is corrupt.

There’s not a shred of evidence to suggest that’s the case. But, egged-on by the press in search of a scalp, the court of public opinion had already found her guilty anyway. ‘Scuse me if I don’t raise my pitch-fork in jubilant celebration.

This episode has taken me back in time.

First, to the harsh justice meted out in 2010 to David Laws, who under-claimed his own expenses in order to hide his sexuality from the public gaze – and has ever since been lazily condemned as a ‘fraudster’ by those who can’t be bothered to check the facts.

And then to the original Telegraph investigation into MPs’ expenses, in 2009. As I wrote then:

… amidst the appalling abuses, genuine scandals and likely frauds that our MPs have committed with our money, the Telegraph has also been guilty of flaky fact-checking, unfair distortions and disgraceful smears. … Too many of their expenses stories have failed to stand up to even the most basic scrutiny that I find it hard to take any at face value. … What’s worse, though, is that the Telegraph allegations have been uncritically repeated, sometimes with further unproven exaggerations, by other news media – print and broadcast – scared to be caught behind the curve, and fearful that any attempt to question the Telegraph’s reporting competence will come across as defending ‘these scrounging MPs’.

Much of the media, and too many journalists, are uninterested in facts – whether the issue is MPs’ expenses or immigration. Why are they not interested? Follow the money: we, the public, are ultimately to blame.

We not only get the politicians we deserve; we get the press we deserve, too.