Maria Miller and media witchhunts

A cluster of ideas over the Maria Miller resignation

This morning, I literally got woken up with the news (thank you BBC app) that Maria Miller had resigned.  Her position had become ‘untenable’ and news of her resignation letter to David Cameron quickly circulated around the country on Twitter and every major news source.

I’ve been teaching Media Studies for five years now and I’ve had to defend it as a ‘soft subject’ from the beginning, yet this is exactly the type of moment where it becomes absolutely crucial in understanding the world.  If you don’t learn to navigate the visuals and the language that is presented to the public then an event such as this can be completely rewritten and your understanding of it can be reversed, in real time!

Maria Miller is the MP for Basingstoke and also the minister for Culture.  She recently became notorious for claiming £90,000 of public funds for her London house that she lived in with her husband, children and parents.  This property was declared a ‘second home’ under parliamentary rules, so she managed to claim allowances for all kinds of benefits such as her council tax on the public purse.

The independent parliamentary watchdog then investigated her and wrote a report stating that she had overclaimed £45,000, but by the time that this was presented to her the number had been reduced to £5,800.  The public quickly became annoyed at this for three reasons:  Firstly, she was asked to apologise for the mistake, so she made a brief and perfunctory 34 second apology ‘to the house’ (of commons) as opposed to the public; secondly, she had clearly been aggressively opposed to any investigation; and thirdly, the amount she had had to repay was drastically cut by fellow MPs, which didn’t exactly look justified.

Now, obviously the public only knows about this kind of thing because of media reporting, but very quickly allegiances develop on either side of the argument (should she resign for her actions) and audiences are almost immediately positioned to believe one thing or another depending on the ideology of the source that is being read/watched/listened to.

The public was overwhelmingly opposed to what Maria Miller had done – different polls were putting the opposition as high as 78%.  Yet politicians were overwhelmingly sympathetic, for obvious reasons.  Ian Duncan Smith (IDS), the man responsible for attacking benefits recipients and rebranding them all as ‘scroungers’, suddenly declared the opposition to her as a media “witchhunt” and that a ‘line should be drawn’ under the issue.  Then the story evolved, and media literacy becomes essential for navigation.

IDS’s statement quickly became the preferred language for the issue, and got used in every single report since he said it.  Commentators then got to use this as a debate over the original issue – so, Did Maria Miller falsely claim tax payer money? got replaced with Is this a media witchhunt?  This is clearly not what the public were annoyed about, yet fundamentally changes the nature of the debate.

This morning, all of the TV news broadcasters are framing the narrative to suggest that she had been forced out due to ‘the media’.  This position not only gives legitimacy to IDS and his witchhunt theory, but also takes pressure off of her initial wrongdoing.  It also anchors the term ‘witch’ to Miller, an epitaph that she will never shake…

In her resignation letter, Miller claims that the controversy had “become a distraction from the vital work this government is doing”.  But the problem with this is that the letter is clearly nothing more than a prepared document for public consumption.  A phone call would suffice to let Cameron know of her resignation, but instead a letter is crafted (by an aide presumably) to present to the media for broadcast.  This then gets printed and discussed in full as a kind of free advertising for conservative policy.  This might sound obvious, but it just another tactic to remove emphasis on her initial wrongdoing.

Over the last couple of days on Twitter, the hashtag #MariaMillerMustBeSacked started trending worldwide.  The game had begun and it was vital to pick a side in order to stay relevant to a partisan audience…

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